The importance of early childhood education is sometimes an afterthought in our discourse about the general topic of education in the United States. A lot of discussions center on access and success in the higher education realm, sometimes beginning with conversations about the K-12 pipeline. The national push for universal pre-Kindergarten, reinvigorated in recent years by President Obama, has altered the focus of education policy and messaging. It's important to note how social media campaigns have helped to highlight the issue reminding everyone of how important the early years in the development of the brains of young people. One of these campaigns has been uplifted and galvanized by David Johns, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Johns, a former elementary school teacher and senior education policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), is continuing to use his platform to ensure that the youngest of our citizens are not neglected or ignored. Through his constant usage of the "teach the babies" phrase and the #teachthebabies hash tag on social media he reminds us that, as he often says, "learning begins at birth and the preparation for learning begins well before birth."
The heightened awareness of the importance of high quality learning opportunities is significant because so many children fall behind before they even enter Kindergarten. The My Brother's Keeper Task Force Report to President Obama that was released in May stated that children who come from low-income families hear 30 million less words than their higher income counterparts by the age of three years old. Black and Hispanic children also start kindergarten behind in math and science when compared to their White peers. Johns' work with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans has focused on improving investments in early childhood education programs that are of high quality and increasing the number of children who are enrolled in preschool and childcare programs.
In his testimony last year at a Congressional hearing on the status of black males, Johns stated that "unlike the K-12 public education system which is financed mostly by federal, state, and local governments the cost for childcare is largely borne by parents and families. The economic crisis, high cost of childcare, and variance of state laws frequently leads parents to pursue non-center based methods of informal care. More must be done to subsidize the cost of high quality childcare for parents who cannot afford such programs because they are unemployed or underemployed." In addition to public speeches where Johns has highlighted the importance of ensuring that all children have access to high quality early learning programs including home visiting, child care, Head Start and pre-Kindergarten programs and services, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans contributed to "Being Black is Not A Risk Factor," a report published by the National Black Child Development Institute and co-authored a report entitled "Equity and Excellence: African-American Children's Access to Quality Preschool" with the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Johns' leadership on the early childhood education issue now and in the future will be crucial to stimulating positive change to address inequity before a child even enters school. His "teach the babies" movement not only has the capacity to influence policy designs to increase the access to high quality early-childhood education but it also can spark bottom-up community movements for improvement in this area as well. Community organizations, churches, and other entities can help in spreading the word that Johns has so passionately championed. Johns frequently highlights existing efforts in his many conversations with students and parents, community groups, and education stakeholders.
The awareness aspect of this campaign alone can create positive change because of the many people who are not aware that a tremendous amount of our brain development happens in the first three years of life. If baby brains don't get adequate exercise in those first years, then they won't be ready for kindergarten and will be on the wrong trajectory for life. This fall, Education for a Better America (EBA) will partner with First 5 California for an Early Childhood Education Tour through churches and other venues with workshops that will emphasize the importance of early brain development through talking, reading and singing by parents in order to develop their children's brain capacity. It is important for all of us to leverage our collective resources and capacities to follow the lead of David Johns and "teach the babies."
To learn more about David J. Johns, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, and the #TeachTheBabies Movement visit www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation and @MrDavidJohns
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the executive director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Administration at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University