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The Answer to Failing Schools Rests in Early Childhood: A Response to Trump’s DeVos Appointment

November 28, 2016

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Jessica Bergeron ~

The popular movie “Waiting for Superman” details the lives of several families anxiously waiting on their acceptance to charter schools lotteries as an answer to their failing public school option. The plight of these mostly black and brown families ignites a strong feeling of unjustness throughout the movie on several levels with the primary one being, “How could a child actually make it out of a public school that bad?”. No amount of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps could get a child out of a school district with such low graduation rates. The movie gives a strong impression that charter schools are the only answer to this epidemic, and President-elect Trump appears to agree with his recent appointment of Betsy DeVos, a charter school and school voucher advocate.

The movie gives a startling statistic mid-way through, however, that one in five charter schools perform the same or worse than public schools. Trump and DeVos, a billionaire and heir to Amway and an investment management group, with their extensive business backgrounds curiously fail to discuss this poor ROI in advocating for privatization of schools. Unless you examine it a bit more deeply and realize that, in this investment equation, the children and families themselves are not the investors (they are not monetary beneficiaries of these failing schools or charter programs) or the consumers (which implies families have a choice between low quality and better quality). The misleading title of “school choice” legislation is a misnomer for low-income neighborhoods with few quality options for school choice, either public or private.

One begins to wonder, with DeVos and Trump’s clear understanding of how businesses are successful, why such a low rate of success would be satisfactory if they truly believe these charters and vouchers are the answer to failing schools . . . unless you frame the conversation exclusively from a business perspective. Privatized charter schools with a low-rate of return suck valuable funding from public schools but turn a quick profit for private companies before closing within three years (due to failing scores). Charter schools require low investment capital because they are staffed by inexperienced teachers (read: cheap) who have hopes and dreams of changing the world but are rapidly faced with the realities of teaching a population of children that require more skills and education to be successful, not less. Worse yet, the hopes and dreams are peddled to affluent young teachers as a line item for their resumes, no more than a way-station on their route to a more “serious” career.

From a business standpoint, charter schools and school vouchers are a profitable market. Morally, however, selling out low-income schools to the highest bidder is repugnant and incompatible with what makes America great, which is opportunity. Without quality public schools, many of our most vulnerable students will never be given the opportunity to rise above their circumstances to have the same chances as those in higher socio-economic income brackets. Even middle class families will have to cough up funding for transportation to private or out-of-district schools or move far away from their jobs and families to support a quality public education. The irony is that the picture perfect vision of the 1950s and 1960s painted by President-elect Trump requires public school education in order to be complete. His very vision marketed to many Americans is in jeopardy.

Rather than capitalizing on draining the rich coffers of our K-12 public education system, President-elect Trump would do well to shift the focus to match the changing demographic of Americans, particularly working Americans with families who are paying an exorbitant amount of money for early childhood education (from birth through ages five). Quality early childhood programs are in high demand yet hard to come by for an affordable price. And, as we learn more about the brain science of the first five years of life, we are learning how crucial these early years are to lifelong success. A child’s brain grows rapidly in the first three to five years of life and vocabulary at age three is predictive of future literacy success. And it is not just preparing children for reading and math. Early childhood educators teach and model valuable lessons to children in the crucial early years around nutrition, health and physical fitness, social-emotional growth, communication that contributes to literacy (language), and early academics to a captive audience.

But more importantly, quality early childhood education can improve the epidemic of failing schools with a front-end investment. Better still, early childhood education research shows that quality education can mediate the negative effects of poverty. Early childhood education teachers can serve as a intermediary to families in need or in crisis by providing a stable, supportive environment. They are afforded the space to love and care for children, growing their brains in a positive way, without the stressors of assessments and testing that cripple K-12 teachers and prevent them from meeting all of the demands of vulnerable children growing up in poverty. Financial investment and improvements to the early childhood education system will create an immediate ROI for the families, eventually the K-12 system, and ultimately our country. Rather than fostering a system of catch-up once children arrive at school, where many children arrive lagging three or four years behind, teachers can simply continue a student’s education on a strong trajectory towards educational success.

A radical approach to education is needed if the US ever hopes to move from the “middle of the pack” in the STEM fields to competing at an international level. President-elect Trump has proven himself to be up for radical change, and the DeVos appointment is no exception. But Trump’s idealized vision of America must include a modern day approach to education that ultimately improves the system in the long term for future generations. An investment in early childhood education will ensure that Trump’s education legacy is morally and financially sound.

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jessicaJessica Bergeron is Director of the Katherine Hamm Center at the Atlanta Speech School. The Katherine Hamm Center at the Atlanta Speech School serves children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) and helps them realize their full potential in language and literacy through listening and talking. Dr. Bergeron received her Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis in Deaf Education from Georgia State University. Her research interests include emergent literacy with children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH), particularly related to the family’s role and strategies that contribute to successful outcomes in language and literacy development. While she was working on her doctorate, she worked as a research teacher for Georgia State University for four years. That collaborative project resulted in the development of the only early literacy curriculum designed for children who are DHH called Foundations for Literacy. 

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