Lynn Darling, Early Childhood Institute Director, On The Early Childhood Education Gap In Mississippi

This piece comes to us courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

The Hechinger Report is taking an extended look at why the children of Mississippi often rank near the bottom of the nation in academic achievement. With increasing attention given to the country's achievement gaps, education reformers and the government have started looking at early childhood education as part of a potential solution.

Mississippi State University's Early Childhood Institute was created in 1999 to provide research-based practices and policy recommendations to improve the state's accessibility and quality of early child care and education. The Institute has been at the forefront of the movement to create better early-learning opportunities for young children. The Hechinger Report spoke with Lynn Darling, director of the Early Childhood Institute.

Q: Why is early childhood education is so important, especially for communities in Mississippi?

A: You know, we have a lot of challenges. About one-third of students living in Mississippi live in poverty. We're a rural state, which comes with challenges that people in New York and Chicago probably don't think about. Transportation is an incredible challenge when you live in a rural community. Access to quality care is extremely limited. And because kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Mississippi, we have children already starting behind because maybe they went to kindergarten and maybe they didn't. We don't have state funded pre-k. We do have Head Start and many districts use their Title I dollars for 4-year-old pre-k classrooms, but only a third of our districts provide that right now. So access to high-quality care is extremely limited. Teacher education is an issue because in Mississippi you can teach in a pre-k child care center if you're 18 and have a high school diploma or a GED. So we have a lot of challenges in increasing teacher training.

Why has the state not yet addressed these issues? What's holding Mississippi back?

I think there's a lack of understanding of the role of early learning experiences. We're still trying to have people recognize that learning begins at birth; it doesn't begin the first day of kindergarten. It's a huge challenge for us to educate state leaders, the business community, and all of our stakeholders in what happens in the first five years of a child's life, and how formative those experiences are to their future social-emotional and academic success. When you talk to people just a little about brain development and what happens in those first five years, they begin to understand the importance of early child experiences. We're working hard to get the message out that those first five years are formative and we can't dismiss them or trust that babies will take care of it on their own and that when they get to kindergarten they'll start learning. It seems to be the attitude, and it's just an old-fashioned idea about what teaching means, what learning means, and when it all happens.

What needs to change before we see a statewide pre-k system in Mississippi?

We need a system change in the state. We don't really have a system in place that has clear-cut goals for where we're headed. I look at Maryland and other states that have really done their work in establishing goals for early childhood, and a plan for making those happen, and we don't even have that in place. When we were working on the Race to the Top Early Learning grant, we started that work and the ball got rolling. But without the funding, it's incredibly difficult to take the next step. We attempted to move child licensure from the Department of Health to the Department of Human Services, which would have been one step in addressing the system change, and it was defeated in the legislature. So we just have a lot of work to do in creating a unified system with all players at the table in agreement about what direction we're headed. And we just haven't been able to make that happen.

How do you invest in these players and stakeholders?

Through conversations. Everyone is so focused on fourth-grade reading scores. We can help them understand language development begins at birth, through important interactions with adults, and that really does lay the foundation for future academic success. We know all the statistics: children with a pre-k background are more likely to complete high school, go to college; earning potential is higher. When you talk to the business community, you have to frame it in those terms. We're building future citizens here. I think it's hard for me sometimes to articulate because within the early childhood community, we take for granted that everyone understands all this. We continue to try to tell the story in as many different ways as possible to get the point across.

But there's a lot of controversy in the state about whether state-funded pre-k is the answer, or if we should invest that in care for younger children. There's a concern that if we fund pre-k, then a lot of privately-owned child care centers will go out of business. It's expensive to run infant and toddler classrooms--you need a 3- and 4-year-old classroom to pay the bills--so it would be difficult for a private child care center to remain in business just serving infants and toddlers. That's a concern. But at the same time, we want every child to get a high-quality early learning experience, and we want those years in 3- and 4-year-old classes to be high-quality experiences, not just child care.

In his "State of the State" speech in January, Governor Phil Bryant said that in the next year, the state will gather information from several programs the Institute is involved with, such as Excel by 5, the Quality Rating System, and Mississippi Building Blocks, to determine best practices for early childhood learning. What are some other next steps?

We need to follow Maryland's model, develop four or five goals for early childhood education and then start mapping out ways to make that happen. There are a lot of opportunities for leaders across the state to come together but I feel we're doing a lot of talking and not making forward progress. We had so much momentum going when we were working on the Race to the Top grant, and when we were not successful at receiving that funding, we sort of hit a speed bump. I would like to see us continue but with more focus. And we need to be collaborating with the Department of Education. As more and more school districts develop pre-k programs, it's more and more important that they receive the support they need to do it in an appropriate way, and that's the responsibility of the early childhood community, to make sure that happens. I would like a plan. We have lots of great ideas, we all share the same philosophy, we're working in the same general direction, but I would like to see a more structured plan with very deliberate next steps.

This interview has been edited for length.