White House Summit Recognizes Early Childhood's 'Persistent Army' But Battle Isn't Over

In her opening remarks last week at the White House Summit on Early Education, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President, called the attendees of the Summit "the coalition of the willing." In a panel later that morning, Ralph Smith of the the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, looked around the room at the 150 people present and pronounced, "This is the Army of the Persistent"-- and that name stuck, because, indeed, it was.

Progress has been made over the last 20 years.

Since the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning in 1997, the Army of the Persistent has made progress:

  • The 1997 White House Conference on Early Learning had to debunk the notion that learning begins when children enter school. In 2014, it is widely known that children are born learning.
  • In 1997, the focus was on collaboration among the various supports that children and families need, from learning opportunities to good medical care. At the 2014 Summit, the word "collaboration" was replaced by "interdependence." Supports for children and families must be seamless and not depend on any one leader for sustainability. And, indeed, the breadth of speakers and the audience itself reflected multiple sectors--law enforcement officers, school and early childhood leaders, medical professionals, philanthropists, and government at all levels--all of whom touch the lives of children and families.
  • In 1997, participants made the case for seeing young children as an investment. In 2014, it is common knowledge they are. In fact, President Obama released a report called "The Economics of Early Childhood Investments".
While we should celebrate this tremendous progress, we must also acknowledge that we still have work to do.
  • An inaccurate image of how children learn persists. It was impossible to tally the number of times the phrases "absorb information" or "training children" were used. Children do not learn through pouring information into their brains like empty vessels. Research on brain development reveals--in the words of Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington--that babies' brains are not sponges. Children are active learners.
  • At the Summit, mentions of the "word gap"--the 30,000 million gap in the number of words that young, low-income children experience compared with their higher income peers (Hart, B. & T.R. Risley. 1995. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes)--were evidence of an incorrect understanding of learning and the brain. At an October 2014 White House convening on the "word gap," researchers, including Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, shared new findings revealing that focusing on the number of words children hear leads us down the wrong path. Most important are what she calls "conversation duets" with and without words, where adults and children pay attention to the same thing and have shared interactions that are fluid and connected. The adult builds on what the child says and does, creating a back and forth conversation.
  • Another incorrect assumption heard at the Summit is that social and emotional learning is separate from cognitive learning. In a breakout session, Dr. Patricia Kuhl spoke out against this idea by stating that brain studies, instead, provide very strong evidence of their interdependence.
  • The incomplete understanding of the importance of young children learning both content (e.g., words, numbers, letters) and skills (e.g., perspective taking, focus and self-control, persistence, taking on challenges) was also evident. There was much discussion about content, but how skills develop and how they are connected to executive functions of the brain was not highlighted and is crucial.

In addition to funding, like the $1+ billion announced at the Summit, creating a change of this magnitude will take all of us. It will take a deep commitment to accurately translating the scientific research, sharing it widely, and helping people to act on it. It will take a collective understanding of the importance and wonder of the first five years of life.

Yes, the 2014 Summit was a celebration of the Army of the Persistent, who have achieved so much for young children and their families. But it should also be a call to action to continue the march and to work together--interdependently.

Improving life outcomes for all children is possible but only if the number of foot soldiers in the Army of the Persistent grows to include every single one of us.