From “School Readiness” to “Family Support”
by Elliot Haspel
When it comes to public policy, goals matter -- after all, the destination sets the course. Yet as someone who works in and around early childhood, I am concerned that the dominance of Kindergarten readiness as a goal is dragging us off course.
Let’s be clear: It’s a fact that children who arrive in Kindergarten with foundational pre-academic skills and certain social and behavioral abilities are more likely to be successful. It’s also a fact that lower-income children and children of color are disproportionately less likely to have access to high-quality formal early care and education. But there are multiple paths up this mountain. Those paths go to the heart of a philosophical question about how we spend public money on the first years of life. In an important 2016 policy paper, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a former senior U.S. Department of Education official, termed the two camps ‘school readiness’ and ‘family support’.
School readiness is the idea that the goal of government actions in early childhood is to ensure students show up in kindergarten prepared to fully participate. In other words, it’s an intervention to prevent or repair a gap (indeed, former President Obama and his administration often talked about addressing a “school readiness gap”). Family support, on the other hand, is the idea that (Whitehurst quotes the Danish government here), “public authorities have an overall responsibility for providing a good social framework and for providing the best possible conditions for families with children.” While I find “providing the best possible conditions for families with children” to be both a lovely and evidence-based mission statement for early childhood policy, it will likely not surprise you to learn that ‘family support’ is common in Northern Europe while ‘school readiness’ rules the day in America.
The key difference is where the center of gravity is placed. In the school readiness model, the focus is on the child largely in a vacuum. She needs certain foundational academic knowledge and skills (knowing letters, understanding counting, etc.) and behavioral abilities (self-control, calming down) so that she can succeed in school, and so we’ll figure out a way to give her those. Following the logic, the best way to reliably transfer readiness skills is in a formal center-type setting, and the best time to do so is when the child has fewer immediate physical needs, and so we’ve arrived at pre-K for four- and maybe three-year-olds as an answer.
In the family support model, the family unit comes first. As Whitehurst puts it, that means “providing care based on the needs of parents, which means proportionate spending across the early childhood years [and not just on four-year-olds]; the availability of care that is responsive to the working hours of parents; and a requirement that initiatives taken in relation to individual children must be agreed to by the parents.”
Here’s the problem with our current school readiness philosophy: It doesn’t make any sense from a developmental perspective. Segmenting out four- and maybe three-year-olds ignores the dizzyingly complex and cumulative nature of child and brain development that we know starts in utero. The landmark report Neurons to Neighborhoods puts it this way:
The scientific evidence on the significant developmental impacts of early experiences, caregiving relationships, and environmental threats is incontrovertible. Virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning early in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years.”
Beginning early in the prenatal period. Not beginning at age four.
Now, this isn’t necessarily an either-or -- public pre-K programs have helped many, many children, and providing free pre-K improves both parental checking accounts and their ability to work. A few programs, most notably Early Head Start with its provision of things like home visiting, also show that it’s feasible to bridge school readiness and family support. Moreover, policies like universal pre-K absolutely can (and in many cases should) be folded into a family support arc.
But there’s a cost to our current readiness-heavy model. Focusing on school readiness means we pump our resources and energy into policies and programs for four-year-olds. As the National Governors Association writes, at a time when pre-K policy is one of the hottest topics nationwide, “setting a policy agenda that specifically addresses the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families is still only an emerging concept in most corners of the country.” Pritzker Children’s Initiative Director Gerry Cobb recently put an even finer point on it, writing in a Governing op-ed that “When public investments are siloed to a specific age group, there can be unintended consequences, which ultimately have the greatest impact on parents who are already stressed in the earliest months and years of caring for a child.”
Interestingly, Whitehurst, an education guy through and through, comes down largely on the side of family support. He does so because it’s a false dichotomy -- supporting the family supports school readiness!
Secure attachments form the basis for healthy brain development and thus all future emotional regulation and academic learning. Regardless of the child care situation, children are spending a huge number of their hours at home. There is a raft of research showing that even modest increases in family income have tremendously positive impacts on both children’s well-being and later school performance. The cascading effects of putting families in a place where they are not chronically stressed and in a scarcity mindset can hardly be overstated.
While every parent adores their child, when you’re not freaking out about which bill to put on which credit card, or bone-tired from working multiple jobs, it’s a lot easier to get on the floor and read The Very Hungry Caterpillar ten times. When you can make ends meet, you’re also likely to be able to secure critical elements like decent housing, which brings huge benefits for children’s learning in terms of improved sleep and reduced environmental toxins. Finally, financial stability means you’re much better set up to have time and capacity for selecting a high-quality child care setting for your kid if you choose to work outside the home.
In the end, family support begets school readiness. School readiness efforts bereft of family support give you only marginal, not systemic, impacts. Family support calls for a package of policies across the spectrum of childhood (remember: “providing the best possible conditions for families with children”). Promising ideas abound, ranging from making doulas and other maternal care professionals fully covered by insurance, to unrestricted child allowances, to child care credits that zero out family costs, to universal home visiting, to after-school and summer care for school-aged kids, and to, yes, universal pre-K. If we can reframe the approach from school readiness to family support and put this all together, we’ll reap the benefits for generations to come.
Elliot Haspel is a former elementary school teacher and early childhood policy analyst who writes about early childhood and K-12 education policy. He holds an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Elliot’s work has been featured on The Washington Post, The New Republic, Romper, The 74 Million, and other sites. He resides in Richmond, VA with his wife and two young daughters. Elliot’s book, “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It,” will be published this November.