Success Starts Young: Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin

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

Closing Remarks
September 18, 2015 — National Press Club — 3:30 PM

People in this video:

Debra Ackerman - Research Project Manager, Early Childhood Research and Assessment Center, ETS
Marian Wright Edelman - Founder and President, Children’s Defense Fund
Jeffrey Dunn - President and CEO, Sesame Workshop
Michael Nettles - Senior Vice President and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair, Policy Evaluation and Research Center, ETS

Transcript Body

On-screen: : [Debra Ackerman.  Research Project Manager, Early Childhood Research and Assessment Center, ETS.]

Debra Ackerman, Research Project Manager, Early Childhood Research and Assessment Center, ETS - Hi, everyone. I know that it's been a long, but very productive day, so that we can move along. I'm Debbie Ackerman. I have the great privilege of being an early childhood researcher at ETS, and I'm obviously biased, but I'm so proud to be a part of an organization that has sponsored this today. So please join me in thanking not only my colleague Andy DeBruin-Parecki, but also Michael Nettles, the Senior Vice President of the Policy Evaluation and Research Center in which my work is situated, so thank you to both of you so much for helping to sponsor this. I also wanted to thank all of you for attending today. I have remarked to many of you that I go to conferences quite a bit as an academic researcher, and while they're always worthwhile, I cannot remember the last time I have been at a day-long session where I have met so many interesting people from so many different industries that are related to early childhood. So from my perspective, this has just been a fantastic experience, so thank you so much for attending.

So I was asked to introduce the panelists, but they've all pretty much already been introduced to your earlier today, so without further ado please join me in re-welcoming to the stage Marian Wright Edelman, Jeffrey Dunn and Michael Nettles.

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

Marian Wright Edelman - I really don't have an angry sermon. That came out because I still don't understand how in the most powerful and the biggest economy on Earth we can't do the right thing to invest in our children, but we do need to be more constructively angry and determined. And one of the things I'd like to see is every early childhood person going into organizing training so that we can put on the next level of movement building that we've got to have, and we're going to be doing that at the Children's Defense Fund. But I just want to thank you for all the hard work that's gone on here today and the good sharing. Thank you Michael, and thank you Sesame Street, and thank you all for making this possible. And we know a lot, and it's good to share and pull all the pieces together for children, and we have got to have a high-quality early childhood system, which almost every other sane industrialized nation has. And I'm just going to be very, very crisp, and if you heard this forgive me, but I have been telling Noah's Ark story for the past three years since this piece from an anonymous sage showed up. We're packrats in my family, and my sister sent me this old piece, this worn-out piece from my home, from my birthplace, and it said that everything you need to know in life you can learn from Noah's Ark. And the first line was, the first lesson was don't miss the boat. And the United States is going to miss the boat to future leadership in our globalizing world if it does not invest in all of our children. The greatest national military and economic security problem does not come from any outside enemy. It comes from our failure to invest in our people and in our children who are our growing edge, and so we need to get that message across. Who is going to be here to compete in many ways with the Japanese, and the Chinese, and the Singaporeans and the Chinese? I mean it's just common sense. So we're going to miss the boat if we don't invest in our children. And so we should again be strengthened, and be courageous and un-defensive about trying to get done what has to be done to make sure our children get what they need in order to be able to survive, and compete and to grow in this globalizing world.

And the second lesson from Noah's Ark is we're all in the same boat, and we may not like, because a lot of people don't like, all of these non-white children, and these poor children and these children who are not like us, or who have special needs and may take more attention and time. We've got to recognize that we're all in this boat together, and that each child is sacred and not negotiable in terms of who we serve and don't serve. And so we should be speaking up very strongly about the basic tenets of America's dream and applying it to our most vulnerable, but God did not make two classes of children and we must not let this country continue to have two classes of children. And so I think Noah's lesson, the lessons from Noah's Ark, the second one is good.

The third is don't be afraid of criticism. I'm sure everybody thought Noah was crazy when he was building that ark because it wasn't raining then. But he went out and did it in the first place, and if you don't want to be criticized, don't say anything, don't do anything and don't be anything. And I think that's one of the things that we as child advocates, we need to stop being so polite, and so nice and so afraid of being criticized. Get on out there and do what you have to do to save these children. There's nothing more important than challenging the mistreatment of children that can't speak for themselves. So it's not about a job. It's a mission, and it's a calling and I always say if teachers in the classroom and administrators don't love children, and have a passion about saving children and have a passion about being just to children, then go do something else, because this is really a calling. And so I thank all of you who have been doing this for so many years, and please keep doing it.

The fourth lesson is my favorite I think. Everybody keeps; we're waiting for Dr. King to come back, but it said remember that the ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic by professionals. And we're all looking for the great savior to come back, and to tell us what to do and to save us. Well, we've got to build a movement. Dr. King's not coming back. Dr. King didn't start a single movement. I think I've said it here. I say it all the time. He responded to the demands of local people. Miss Parks had to sit down, Miss Parks had Jo Ann Robinson, who'd been waiting for the right plaintiff to come along. And the lawyer was out of town, but they didn't wait for the lawyer to come back to tell them that could sort of begin to sort of Xerox and mimeograph – they didn't have Xerox; they had mimeograph machines – and get the things out. And Jo Ann Robinson, who happened to be a member of Dr. King's church, who was new and had just come to Montgomery, didn't have a whole lot of baggage as the other ministers did, so she decided he was going to be the leader of the movement.

But these movements bubble up from the cumulative sense of injustice over time, but you can't be sitting there waiting for that leader to come back. You also can't expect to be sure leadership is going to come out of Washington. You're going to get out of Washington what you demand from Washington. You're going to get out of your state capitols what you demand from your state capitols. And so we've got to understand that we really are the locomotives of what's going to happen for children, and so I just hope that we can get ourselves into a movement bend. We know enough. We know what works. We know what the cost is. We know what the cost of not investing is. And I've said this morning I just hope we will recognize that children don't come in pieces. We've got to get out of our silos. Early childhood is something that cuts across every discipline, and I think that good policy ought to be like good parenting. Nobody would choose to give their child food and not give them healthcare if they were sick, or not send them to school, or not give them clothing or not give them housing. And so let's just make sure that our country begins to be good parents to the next generation of all of our children who demand that and have a quality continuum of care.

I don't understand why it's so hard to talk about ending child poverty. We released a report in January on ending child poverty in this country. We asked everyone to look at nine policies that could significantly impact, policies that we know work, housing policies, childcare policies, refundable child tax credits and income tax credits, earned income tax credits, but nine policies that we know. And if you put them in full play, how many children could we decrease, get out of poverty? And the answer back from the Urban Institute survey was that we could decrease overall child poverty by 62 percent …., 62 percent that we could, 62 percent that we could end, we could decrease black child poverty by 70 percent. And it really just breaks my heart that after a transforming civil rights movement, the black child is the poorest child in America and we've got to change that. That we could lift the floor for 97 percent and give them a better foundation, which would include high-quality childcare for all of our children who are living in poverty. And yesterday, since this data came out and we see now that we've not only made too little progress, but we've now got 15.5 million children, the black child is still the poorest child in America, the child is still the poorest American. That's disgraceful and it's going to be our undoing.

We asked the Urban Institute to cost out what it would cost to end child poverty, to do these things, and they said $77 billion. And it turns out it's a bargain because beginning 20 years ago with Bob Solow's help, a Nobel Laureate from MIT, we had asked him to quantify what it cost us every year to maintain 14 million men, children in poverty, and he said that it's about $500 billion in foregone productivity, incarceration costs, and dependency costs and school dropouts. So it's a bargain to talk about investing in getting every child ready for school, and getting every child learning in school and being prepared for the future.

We also told people how they could, we could pay for it. I mean imagine that I'm saying we cannot afford to invest in educating our children, and giving them all healthcare and giving them all an early childhood foundation. They found the money in the House Budget Committee to decrease, to repeal the estate tax costs for the top two-tenths of one percent, which would cost I don't want to tell you how many billions of dollars for people already at a time when we've got extraordinary extremes of wealth and income equality. But we lay out a range of things. If we just did a few less of those F-35s, we could fund everything we want to get done here for our children and they don't even work. I tell you, if our research on early childhood was as weak as their research is on these planes that still don't fly and is going to cost us up to a trillion dollars. We don't have a money problem in America. We have a profound values and priorities problem, and we need to change that for our children, but we need to be angry. We need to be strategically effective and we need never to give up. And we've made enormous progress over the last years, 40 years, 50 years, step-by-step and issue-by-issue, but we've now got to come together and say, “We're going to work on one big policy issue a year or every two years until we get it.” And I'll tell you, if three of the black women's organizations, that's who I am, if the Deltas and the Jack and Jills decided we're going to just do early childhood and get that Strong Start Bill through, or whatever bill we want to get through, and just stay on them like mad, they shouldn't be able to go home anywhere. And if one or two of the church denominations – don't need a whole lot of them – but if just one of them instead of partying all weekend and having a good time, if we sort of said, “We're going to really, Baptists, Methodists;” I love the Methodist women because we ended up refuting the, turning back the veto from the first President Bush, said he was going to veto the Childcare Block Grant. But the Methodist women collected, who kept their money, didn't give it to the men, always have been independent – men still trying to get their money – they've kept it, and I'm a Baptist woman, but they walked up, and they went to the White House, and they opened up the gates and they delivered boxes, and boxes and boxes of letters saying, “Don't you dare veto this Childcare Block Grant,” and he did not dare veto this Block Grant. We've got all the power we need.

We did a Stand for Children 20-plus years ago. We ended up, and people didn't know that, but six million children in CHIP. And we may have to make some more Stand for Children soon, but we need to take our stand, and we need to be clear, and we need to bring our communities together across the silos, and I can't think of anything we should be able to build a consensus more on than our early childhood foundation. If the foundation of your house is not healthy, and not safe and not stable, the rest of it is not going to work. And so I just thank you for what you've been doing, thank you for what you are doing, but we now need to get out there and go to that next phase of seeding the transforming movement of having an agenda that is doable, and achievable and defendable. But whoever gets in the White House the next time, and whoever gets in your governor's office, you ought to be on them like mad.

And last, let me just say we had a very tough time keeping CHIP, which was thrown overboard, which covers six million children in the Affordable Care Act. And everybody said, “The deal's been made. They're cheap exchanges. Can't do anything.” Children need people who are kick down the door after everybody has closed it and said you can't do anything. And we had baby stroller parades. People who wouldn't return my calls, our calls, when you put 400 baby strollers outside their front office with the grand-mamas, they will respond. If you can; and I loved it, somebody said, “You can't take baby strollers up inside the Senate and the Congress. They're not going to let you in there.” You should have seen those security guards, most of whom were black women, letting us through, helping us through the security line. So we need to come up with some new drama, dramatic way, because the media, there's a new second; everybody's got a one-second attention. But we need to come up with some creative new ways to keep our children front and center, but we also need to come together across our silos and our good work and figure out how we can come together with a major mass of unified power. And I can't think of anything more important than talking about putting together the zero-through-kindergarten, through kindergarten, because you've got Common Core standards. I'm for that, but don't give children new standards and you don't give them the means to achieve those standards, and less than 15 states have full-day kindergarten. So it's going go; we need to get them able to succeed. So I just hope we can come together on early childhood and finish this job, and I just thank you from the bottom of my heart. We've got the power to do it and let's do it.

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

Jeffrey Dunn, President and CEO, Sesame Workshop - I know, right? You've got to laugh. Originally she was supposed to go last and Michael said, “Can we reverse this order and I'll go last?” and I'm saying, “Sure, we can do that.” But now I'm thinking, “I must be the filler in the sandwich,” which is an interesting place to be. At any rate, as many of my Sesame colleagues know I often talk, I try to talk from both the head and the heart, which is what I'm going to try and do a little bit now, and my closing remarks to you come from a personal perspective. So what is that personal perspective? Well, I am a bit of an outsider to these proceedings. My background is a bit different I suppose from the typical one in that I'm a for-profit businessman that has come to run a not-for-profit organization talking to a room full of educators, so it's perhaps a little bit of a different perspective. And so I'd like to make some observations after being here today and listening to everything that's been said about what's on my mind.

So let me start with this thought, Calvin Coolidge famously once said, “The business of America is business,” and there is some truth to that. Without jobs there is just poverty. However, I joined Sesame Workshop because I'm one of those executives that believes that the opposite is also true, that the business of business is America. As a businessman I say that our country needs to understand that our demography is destiny. Demography is destiny. Here are some of our demographic facts, and I'm going to come at this a little bit differently than she did, but we're going to get to the same place. The average life expectancy to a man born in 1900 was just 47 years old. Think about that, 47 years in 1900. Human beings have been around for millions of years, but it's really been in just the last 100 years that life expectancy has grown, and it's almost doubled in that time. So millions of years, it's taken just the 100 for it to double. We are in unchartered territory. We have never seen this many people before, living this long, but here's the really important point, without the financial resources to do it. That's the real thing, without the financial resources to do it. The only possible sustainable answer is that the economy must be robust enough and inclusive enough to support this new population cohort that is developing.

Now Sesame is a global organization and I've had the privilege of traveling around the world, and the more I travel the more I realize how special we are as a nation. What sets us apart is our business model. Most people probably don't think that countries have business models, but they really do, and America's business model is a unique blend of democracy and capitalism. In other words, a free people and free markets. And what's interesting about that model is this: both democracy and capitalism require an educated population to make it work. So here we have two demographic trends that are about to collide. Our aging population will require a robust inclusive economy to support them and our economic model requires an educated population. This trend is about to meet with another one. The fastest growing portions of our population are the ones the most at risk of being left behind educationally. I can tell you as a business person the math on this does not work. We need a fully educated population as a country. As Marian Wright Edelman said, our national self-interest demands that we fix this and fix it urgently. And I can tell you the life of everyone in this room depends on it.

My second observation is how complex this problem really is. Schools and teachers alone can't fix it. Families and family life have a huge influence and input, and technology will certainly play a role. Throughout the history of mankind it has been game-changing technology that has allowed the living standards of humans to leap forward. I suspect it will happen again here, which is why we at Sesame Workshop are working on all of these issues. We are focusing at the intersection of technology and families and now schools. We know that kids are no longer at home, sitting and just watching TV. Many more are out of home in childcare and school settings. So we need to be in the classroom and childcare settings and not just in media. And I have set, as the new CEO of the Workshop, the challenge to the Workshop to figure out how to make this possible. We need to help all of you out to meet the challenges you face.

So for us helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder all comes back to the MRI I spoke about earlier this morning. We intend to be makers of content that will help not just at the home, but also in the classroom. We intend to be researchers of the progress preschoolers make. We intend to be instigators, helping to sound the alarm for urgency and supporting all of you because most of all you share our mission and you share our values. So on behalf of all of us from Sesame who are here with you today, thank you very much. We've enjoyed it.

On-screen: [Michael T. Nettles. Senior Vice President and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair, Policy Evaluation and Research Center, ETS.]

Michael T. Nettles, Senior Vice President and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair, Policy Evaluation and Research Center, ETS - So thanks again, Marian and Jeffrey, for joining us in this symposium. Today has given me personally a great deal of hope that I didn't come here with this morning. We've been; we've had talented people who are doing remarkable work on display here today, and I think Cathy Grace's question earlier about rural Mississippi sort of sums it up for me, and that is how do you get the investment so coordinated and disbursed that it's applied toward every human being in the country and that represents a huge challenge for us. Despite the fact that we have all of this productivity under way, people across the country are not aware of it and don't always have access to it. So it gives us a great challenge to think about the level of investment, the type of investments that we make to try to make, to broaden access to what's being produced already. We have much to learn, as people pointed out here today, and much work to do. But coordination is a huge objective I think that we can walk away with to figure out.

For Andrea DeBruin and I, we've concluded that there are people here we need to invite to ETS to spend some time with us, to help us to think through our next steps and to help us to, and understand who we are and how we might be able to play a larger role. So I want to thank you all for spending the time with us. You've heard a lot of people today. I'm not going to go on. I want to thank Marian for those inspiring concluding remarks and Jeffrey for your challenge to us.


Duration: 24:20 minutes