Executive Perspective

Aligning Behind the Total Child

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

If you go to the U.S. Department of Education website and look up early childhood, you find this statement: “The years before a child reaches kindergarten are among the most critical in his or her life to influence learning. President Obama is committed to providing the support that our youngest children need to prepare to succeed later in school. The president supports a seamless and comprehensive set of services and support for children, from birth through age 5.”

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

If you then look at AASA’s position paper, “Educating the Total Child,” you can read this paragraph: “Factors such as prenatal care, health services available to a child after birth, parenting education and support, the quality of child care, and the availability of preschool programs and full-day kindergarten all affect children’s ability to learn. Addressing each factor long before a child sets foot in the classroom is critical to eliminating the achievement gap.”

We are delighted that the president’s position on early childhood so closely parallels AASA’s. To those of us who have been in this business for any period, it comes as no surprise that by the time children come to our schools a substantial achievement gap already exists between the haves and have nots. Studies show the percentage of children ages 3-5 with cognitive/literacy school readiness skills is less than half for children of poverty compared to children above the poverty level.

Investment Payoffs
W. Douglas Tynan, a leading pediatric psychologist, shared with me information on a 12-state study by the Child and Family Policy Center and Voices for America’s Children titled “Early Learning Left Out,” which showed the disparities in investment in children’s education and development by child age. For every dollar invested in school-aged children in the 12 states, only 13.7 cents was invested in the earliest learning years, which was only one-fifth the amount invested in college-aged youth.

The evidence is overwhelming that huge disparities exist in the experiences of children in their early years that evolve into the achievement gap that persists throughout the years of schooling. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, writes about the circumstances that define an individual’s success in his new book, Outliers. (Gladwell will be one of the keynoters at AASA’s national conference in Phoenix, Ariz., Feb. 11-13, www.aasa.org/nce.)

In Outliers, Gladwell posits that an individual’s success has as much to do with circumstances and opportunities as it does with talent. “It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes. “Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

He presents an interesting argument to support his position that birthday cutoff dates in ice hockey have much to do with the success of individual players. Apparently, most of the best players in the world were born between January and March, while only 10 percent were born between October and December. The cutoff birthday for most youth hockey leagues is Jan. 1, which means the young players born closest after that date have a physical advantage over those born later. They tend to be bigger and stronger than their younger counterparts. They consequently get noticed, labeled as the better players, selected for better teams, therefore getting more playing time and better coaching.

Gladwell wonders whether the same phenomenon occurs in education. Is it conceivable that with a Sept. 30 cutoff date for kindergarten admission, a child born on Oct. 1 will have an advantage due to greater intellectual development and maturity? Perhaps, but we certainly know there are many opportunities that are not available to children of poverty and other factors that prevent them from achieving success in spite of significant individual talent.

Holistic Solutions
Geoffrey Canada, the founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone and another keynote presenter at our upcoming national conference, is intent on creating the very set of circumstances and opportunities for children that Gladwell credits with being essential for success. Canada was described recently by first lady Michelle Obama, in a Washington Post news story, as “one of my heroes.”

What has Canada done to merit such praise? According to David Brooks, in an op-ed column in The New York Times, Canada has eliminated the black-white achievement gap in the Harlem Children’s Zone. Brooks was referring to a study conducted by Harvard professors Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie that found the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced achievement gains of 1.4 standard deviations. Most programs tend to produce gains of 0.3 standard deviations at best.

Canada has created a holistic set of programs that begin before birth and end with college graduation in a 97-block area of New York City’s Harlem. He has an operating model for educating the total child, and the Obama administration wants to replicate this model in 20 cities across the United States.

With a focus on the total child and a seamless effort on the part of communities to join forces with the schools to address the needs of our students long before they enter school, we can accomplish what has eluded us for so long, the education of all of our children.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org