Success Starts Young: Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin

A National Symposium on Early Learning Standards, Kindergarten Readiness, and Technology and Early Learning

Welcome and Opening Remarks
September 18, 2015 — National Press Club

People in this video:

Walt MacDonald
Jeffrey Dunn
Marian Wright Edelman

Transcript Body

On-screen: [Walt MacDonald.  President and CEO, ETS.]

Walt MacDonald, President and CEO, ETS - Good morning. I can't tell you how excited I am to be here today. This is really extremely important I think, the topic we're going to be discussing today. Welcome to the National Press Club and to Success Starts Young: Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin, A National Symposium on Early Learning Standards, Kindergarten Readiness, Technology and Early Learning. That's a mouthful. It's a long title, but it's so, so important, the work, and so, so important, the issues that we face today. I want to thank all of you for joining us today. I also want to thank my colleagues and co-sponsors of this event. Marian Wright Edelman, who is President of the Children's Defense Fund has; I've known Marian for many, many years. She and her organization are fantastic. They do phenomenal work. They're having huge impact on the lives of children in this country and we need more of that sort of work. She is a legend, and we're so fortunate to have her here with us today.

And then I want to thank Jeffrey Dunn for coming, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. I've known Jeffrey for 15 minutes, but I can tell he's a great guy. He won't let me down. He is. I mean look at this. Look what he's brought. And so you know Sesame Workshop, I mean Sesame Street. Who hasn't had children that have benefited, or grandchildren that have benefited from Sesame Street over the many, many years? They not only entertained our kids, but they also help to educate our kids. Phenomenal work and we're proud to be associated with both of these organizations. Jeffrey tells me he's the new CEO at Sesame Workshop. I'm a new CEO at ETS. I've been in the job about a year and a half. But he's been there just about a year, so he's the rookie here and I'm the veteran. But actually our tenure pales behind Marian's.

For ETS today's symposium is part of our ongoing series of public discussions examining the links between achievement and student background, and on ways to close the gaps between, among students of different backgrounds. The work, this work is very much at the core of ETS's mission. Our mission is to advance quality and equity in education for everyone, particularly with particular emphasis on serving students from historically disadvantaged groups.

ETS was created in 1947 as a not-for-profit, and its mission then is the same as its mission now. That mission, to advance quality and equity in education for all students, is why we exist at ETS. If we're not working to achieve that mission, we have no business being in business. So we're really committed to that mission and committed to the work we're going to talk about today.

In our previous symposium, symposia, on achievement gaps, several were sponsored by, co-sponsored by Marian and the Children's Defense Fund, and they looked at the academic experiences, policies, practices and research related to African-American males, Hispanic students in higher education, English language learners, and just the effect of poverty on learning and education. Today's symposium is a real opportunity to interact, and discuss and talk to some of actually the leaders in early childhood education in this country, so I hope you take advantage of that. We really want a discussion and we really want to hear from all of you.

I'm going to preach to the choir here a little bit about the research. Research shows that high-quality pre-K education produces substantial and lasting benefits for children, families and society. Whether you look at it from the perspective of education or developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine or economics, research has come to the same conclusion: early learning is among the best investments that a society can make in its future. According to recent analyses of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, early childhood education is associated with increasing the cognitive achievement of students by about a third of a standard deviation. This is more than half of the gap, the kindergarten achievement gap that we see between white and African-American students. The Council's analysis also found that if all the families were given unfettered access to preschool education at the same rate as the wealthy families, the impact on our GDP would be more than, down the road, the downstream impact would be more than enough to pay for any added cost associated with giving access to all students.

In my state of New Jersey, the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, it's called NIEER, reported the impact of pre-K programs on the state's high-needs districts. These are called the Abbott Districts in New Jersey and they're districts like Newark, Elizabeth, Camden, really districts in need, and they found a lot of positive impact of preschool education. A couple of them, persistent gains in all tested subjects on state assessments, with larger test score gains for students who participated in at least two years of this preschool, and also lower rates of grade retention and lower rates of special education needs for the students that participated. These are just a few of the examples of the research that demonstrates the educational power of preschool, of high-quality early education programs. And it seems to me it's a no brainer that we should have unlimited and access for all children to high-quality preschool education. Right? Everyone agree? It just seems like it's a no brainer — thank you — based on the research.

And in fact it is in many other countries. Not so much in the US though. The early childhood system here has been highly fragmented. Innumerable private organizations are delivering services that vary widely in scope and quality. We were talking about that this morning. Each state has its own learning standards. We talked about this last night. Each has its own standard for who qualifies to teach in preschool, and, of course, you have just really varying resources from location to location, from state to states that are available for preschool education. As a result, our nation's children are not well prepared overall for kindergarten when they start, and not surprisingly the preparation gap is highest among children of color and children from low-income families.

But there's hope. I hope and believe that things are looking up. In fact momentum behind universal access to preschool, good, high-quality preschool education is gaining. At the federal level last year the White House Summit, the White House had a summit on early childhood education. That helped inject much-needed attention, energy and resources into the effort. So did the one billion in commitments from public-private partnerships, including the Invest in America initiative and its early learning communities project.

State-level funding, enrollments and quality standards are also on the rise. The NIEER, N-I-E-E-R, that's the organization at Rutgers, they produce an annual yearbook of the state of preschool education, and their 2014 yearbook covered the '13-'14 school year, pointed out a rebound in state funding for pre-K programs rebounding from the deep cuts that were made during the recession. It was the second consecutive year of funding increases, but even these gains are modest compared to the cuts that were made back during the recession.

Enrollments also have picked up. Twenty-nine percent of America's four-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs for the 2013-'14 school year according to the yearbook. Still in the United States access to preschool education still depends on where a child lives. It's really based upon their zip code. That's why we're here today to continue to press the agenda for high-quality preschool education for all of America's children.

What's on our agenda today is to describe what a quality preschool education is and how to achieve it. We'll focus on standards, kindergarten, readiness, and the role of technology in early literacy learning and language development. Our special attention will be given to children from underserved populations, including those living in poverty, disadvantaged minorities and English language learners. Our goal is to generate ideas today that can be translated into better policies and practices for children throughout the country. So thank you again for participating today. Your participation matters and your contributions in the future will matter too. I hope you enjoy the symposium and I hope you can use the results and carry this forward to help move the agenda of access for all students to preschool education going forward in the future. So thank you very much. Have a great symposium, and I would like to invite Jeffrey to come up and say a few words. Thank you.

On-screen: [Jeffrey Dunn, President and CEO, Sesame Workshop.]

Jeffrey Dunn, President and CEO, Sesame Workshop - So good morning. That was real. You guys are like teachers. That's great. If my colleagues from Sesame could take note, that's the way to respond, right? "Good morning." "Good morning." It's a pleasure to be here today in our nation's capital and amongst this great gathering of the education community, and I would also like to start by thanking our co-hosts today and my new 15-minute friends, Walt and Marian. I appreciate that. But more importantly their great organizations, ETS and Children's Defense Fund, both of which you know well. You might not know this though. This is what you might not know, that Sesame Street and ETS actually have a long history together and go back all the way to the beginning of when the show was first started. ETS conducted the first research on the show for the first couple of seasons, and so we are delighted to be back together again, working for the good of kids in this important endeavor.

Now as Walt mentioned, I joined the Workshop about a year ago, and it comes at a very important time in the Workshop's history. The way in which kids are living and consuming media has changed dramatically, and with it have come both threats and also new opportunities. Our mission is to help kids become smarter, stronger and kinder, and we think that the need for this mission has never been greater. The years from birth to age five are the most critical window in the life of a child. The effects of this window last a lifetime and the implications to society are profound. Today more than 40 percent of children arrive at kindergarten without the fundamental school-readiness skills, and that's just simply not right. This is why Sesame Workshop focuses on the earliest years and why we have been doing so, because they matter the most, and we've been doing this since our founding 46 years ago.

You all know this. Shortly before Sesame's creation, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson launched a war on poverty, and they did it to mobilize a generation committed to change, and it was in this spirit of change that Sesame's founders, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, set out to transform the lives of vulnerable children by harnessing the power of media to education. The learning revolution and the nonprofit organization they started here in the United States has since grown into a worldwide educational force for change, reaching families and children in more than 150 countries. We do it through every media platform from television to radio — I didn't know we were on radio until I joined — to books to apps. In addition to distribution through media, our on-the-boots, on-the-ground community engagement and social impact efforts focus on providing at-risk communities with educational tools for their specific needs, such as healthy eating, financial literacy and resilience. In this vein, next month we will launch our latest newest initiative, supporting families and children with autism. There you go. That was a good "hmm." I like that. I like that. Our resources will help these families ease the stress of everyday routines and to reduce the stigma faced by kids with autism by celebrating the differences and commonalities amongst all children.

Today's kids are spending more time in preschool and other childcare settings and less time at home, and we are taking that to heart. So our educational efforts not only extend into the community, but now into the classroom as well. We are now supporting classroom curricula through partnerships with Public Prep and other early education organizations, providing a range of media content for the classroom as well as materials for professional development and family engagement.

No other kids' media company sees its primary purpose as education as opposed to entertainment, and certainly no other media company sees disadvantaged kids as its primary target audience. We think the best way we can help kids become smarter, stronger and kinder is to be great at doing three things. We like to call this our very own version of MRI. We are makers of impactful content that is distributed around the globe and on every platform. We are researchers with incomparable breadth and depth of knowledge about the media behaviors of kids and their parents. And we are instigators who inspire and assist the work of others who share our mission and our values.

In our social impact work, we are now choosing to focus on three areas where we can act to make a real difference in kids' lives. ACT, A-C-T. It's another acronym that we use. In acting we are providing access to early education, critical health lessons and tools for vulnerable children. Now I'm sure that everyone in this room believes that education needs to be high on our national priority list to help our kids prosper. Sadly many still don't realize that building the foundation for literacy can start at some of the earliest moments in a child's life. Literacy is one of the greatest indicators of school success and one of the best weapons against a lifetime of poverty. And we know kids are spending more time outside the home compared to when Sesame first began, so we must, we Sesame, must seek to connect home, school and community, because learning can happen any time and anywhere. That's why, for instance, we produce podcasts, and apps and games for mobile devices to play and learn on the go, as well as storybooks and print materials distributed free to families to help them with resilience, healthy eating habits, financial literacy and more. There is no better time than now, right now, to innovate and develop our approaches to early education and to make certain kids of all ages get an early start. Together, working together, our efforts can help to ensure a possibility of a great future for every child.

We like to say this at Sesame, and I'll close with this thought, just as a stone thrown into the water will ripple out, we think we at Sesame can help magnify our impact by using our knowledge and our resources to help assist others around the globe in their efforts to help preschoolers become smarter, stronger and kinder.

My Workshop colleagues and I look forward to discussions that will take place today. There are a bunch of us here — hopefully you'll get a chance to meet us all — and help in discovering new ways we can advance early learning. And I want to thank you for believing in us, for believing in the mission, and supporting the work we do, and let's go out and have a great day. Thank you very much. Marian, over to you.

On-screen: [Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President, Children's Defense Fund.]

Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President, Children's Defense Fund - I grew up in the early days. I met Joan Ganz Cooney in 1968 and saw some of the pilots on Sesame Street in the middle of being a young lawyer in Mississippi trying to save the Head Start Program, which had transformed the lives of poor black young people and children and parents in the state of Mississippi. And so I became a groupie for Big Bird, and Oscar the Grouch and all the folk, and then I had three sons, and so we grew up on Sesame Street. So I'm delighted to kind of be here with our new partner, but I'm just so grateful for the continuing partnership of ETS, with Walt and Michael. They are the best partners we could have, and one of these days we're going to convince the country to stop being both dumb and wrong. It's been so hard to understand why this country cannot do what is right, do what is cost effective, do what is right. It's just, it's a daily; how can this be that the richest nation on Earth does not give a fair shake to all of its folk and realize its own principles.

And so thank you all for being here. Thank you for your work. If Jacqueline is still here, thank you for that great speech again last night. But I hope that we'll come out of this with a plan of action, because we're not going to get what we need to get even though we've made significant incremental progress step by step over the last 46 years, 50 years. We've still got such a long way to go, so I just thank you for what you're doing. Don't get discouraged. Stay mad, and stay effective and get out of your silos. And so what we need now is a massive, effective movement of agitation for children to get us to do what we do.

We know Head Start works. I just watched its transformation in Mississippi. We can always improve its quality, but the parents woke up. The children woke up. And one of the things that I always ask is, why does learning have to be not fun? And children begin to have fun, and to see themselves in the books that were chosen. Not a lot that were diverse back then, but we know it makes a difference.

And so I hope we'll come out of this meeting today with more concrete strategies. I want to affirm the progress of expanding Head Start and Early Head Start. We wrote the perfect bill in 1971 that passed, and it had broad bipartisan support, and we're going to have a reunion with Fritz Mondale and many of the Republican co-sponsors. And President Nixon vetoed it, and we've spent; we went back the next year, but the right wing had come out and beat us again. It took us 30 years to get the Childcare Block Grant. We got the Childcare Block Grant, and we kept incrementally expanding Head Start and trying to improve its quality.

And so this has been a long hard thing, and now we're talking about a Strong Start investment or preschool, and the evidence has come a very long way. We now know more about why the early foundation in those first years of life makes so much sense. And so I think we've got many, many more tools, and we've got many, many more of you, who have just contributed so much to our knowledge and to our efforts, but we've got to finish this job. And the foundation of the house is early childhood development, and we've got to put a high-quality comprehensive system in place for all of our children if we are really concerned about the high school graduation rates and all the other. But we know that, and so why is it we can't do what we know works? And we're just going to keep a lot of other things from coming.

And secondly we've got affirmed the obvious, which any parent knows, that children don't come in pieces, and you can't just deal with one little piece of a kid, and the siloed way in which we've approached early childhood as the way we approached our children has got to end. And the preschool people have got to stop fighting with the childcare people, and the childcare people have got to stop fighting with the Head Start people, and the early zero to three. We've got to address the needs of the whole child and get our act together to deal with the need for a continuum of care that is high quality. All the things that we want to do as good parents is what we should be putting into place as good policy.

And lastly we've got to deal with just the fact that the reality is some people don't want to educate poor and non-white children in this country, and we've got to confront ourselves on that and build a cross-racial, cross-income movement that says you've got to do it not only because it's right and because our dream says that's what we say we want, but we've also got to do it because without it the country is not going to be competitive and strong in the future. So if we can't do it because it's right, we ought to do it because of self-interest.

And so I just thank you for what you're doing. This is a very important meeting. I thank my colleagues Mary Lee Allen, and Janine Bacquie, and Daniel Hains and all who do all the hard work, and we love our collaboration with you. We love working together with you, but we've really got to build a movement to finish his job.

I think we've enough people in political life now understand more about the research, and we who are in a variety of other networks understand that we cannot have new generations by the millions of young children growing up with no stake in the society and no hope. And third, I think that we cannot be a strong country if 80 percent of our children in 4th and 8th grade who are black, can't read or compute at grade level, and our dropout rates are ridiculous, and if the majority of all of our children and all racial groups cannot read or compute at grade level, I mean where is our common sense? And so our chief competitive edge and our chief investment that will yield huge results is in what you have been trying to do for years, and we're going to get there. So the point is we'll get all the data out there again, we'll talk about it today, and then I will give you an angry sermon at the end of the meeting about what we have to do, but thank you for being here.


Duration: 24:32 minutes