74 Interview: Early Ed Expert Ruby Takanishi on Why K-12 Doesn’t Work Without Pre-K

See previous 74 interviews: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and current U.S. Senator and education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander. Full archive here.
Few people know the world of early learning better than Dr. Ruby Takanishi. Before becoming a senior research fellow at New America (where I also work), she led the Foundation for Child Development as president and CEO, taught at UCLA and Yale, worked at Carnegie Corporation of New York, and directed the American Psychological Association’s Office of Scientific Affairs.
This is why it’s so exciting that her new book, First Things First! Creating the New American Primary School, will be published on August 19, 2016. The book explores the present state of early education investments and the policies that govern them, but it also offers a new vision of early learning that links pre-K programs with what happens in elementary schools.
The book could not come at a better time. While K–12 education has been predictably ignored in the 2016 election so far, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has made early education a key part of her platform. But while investments in programs serving the youngest Americans are politically popular — and easy to promise — it’s much more difficult to actually deliver high-quality opportunities that are consistent with candidates’ rhetoric.
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of a conversation Ruby and I conducted over email this month.
Conor Williams: Let’s start by picking up an old conversation of ours. Back in January 2015, I wrote a column proclaiming that universal pre-K was coming, that it was politically inevitable. You warned me that I was hardly the first to make this prediction. So: early education is prominent this election. Is this a real window to move forward on a national commitment to more — and better — early education investments?
Takanishi: Big new programs are unlikely (as shown with President Obama’s rhetoric and promise) without generating new revenue for these programs. Shifting the chairs on the deck of the Titanic is not going to work. On the other hand, there are more possibilities at the state and local levels, as the record of the past ten years proves. The awful downside is that inequalities in access to programs, like existing inequities in education and access to quality children’s programs between states, are likely to increase. Interestingly, economists and others point to early education as a factor in reducing economic and social inequalities, but a sentence or two indicates they have no clue about financing, implementation, and all the other issues we deal with.
We have gone through a long period of reform, from No Child Left Behind and both the Bush and Obama administrations. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a reaction against that long slog, which has not resulted in promising outcomes for students. Of course, ESSA is likely to reinforce state inequities. I hear little from the two candidates about their education platforms beyond stock phrases.
We have to get our heads out of the sand, and we have to be dissatisfied with just throwing out the words. Details matter!
How could we improve our national conversation about early education? It’s popular to talk about expanding pre-K access (and I think we both support that!), but our national debate doesn’t often go too far past that point? What are a few other early learning priorities that need to be part of the 2016 discussion?
Ironically, the best way would be to stop advocating for early education as a separate, add-on program. We need to change people’s mindset — not to think about single, separate programs or part of “extending learning time” — but as an integral part of every child’s learning experience. Participation in early education is a civil and human rights issue.
Financing and funding quality programs should be a high priority. The discussion about raising early educators’ compensation is promising, but not yet connected to the ramifications for costs of programs and therefore, where we are going to get the money? People are either polite or averse to conflict, and don’t want to go there. But we have to.
I would put a high priority on targeted, not universal, programs for low-income toddlers, given the scientific base we now have about children’s learning from birth through three years old.
I would put a high priority on the documented inequalities in access to pre-K and in access to high quality pre-K among low-income and working-class families. We have to recognize that pre-K is not yet a public good, and only affordable to more affluent families.
There were a lot of “children” in the speeches from all convention speakers. But what does that mean? Our children? Other people’s children? Are we in this together? I have not heard any politicians remind us that we are also responsible for other people’s children. That is significant. Again, the narrative has to change. Just invoking “children” is not enough.
Same question, through a different lens: what are a few of the things that are frequently overlooked when new early education programs go from public discussion into the nitty-gritty of implementation?
The preparation of teachers, especially teachers who are working with children whose first language is not English. This is a crucial period for developing second-language literacy for all children, and you have to have well-prepared teachers, not just someone who speaks the language, but who knows how to use language. We need better-prepared teachers of young children who understand their eagerness and capacities to learn.
In the book, I describe wide disparities in the per pupil costs of early learning. Does this matter? I think it does, or, at least, that it requires more attention. Not one economist I know who points to early education has any idea about how it works, the costs of programs, how to pay for them, etc. And, interestingly, no one seems to raise the question with them. We seem to be in awe that they just support early education, and require no more from them.
We have solid research showing that early education programs can significantly shift children’s life trajectories. But political rhetoric about these programs can verge on overpromising what they can realistically deliver. I think that this is a difficult tension: early education became popular in part because of enthusiastic rhetoric touting research results, but that same rhetoric puts early education programs in a bind — the public is expecting pre-K programs to deliver big student achievement gains and increased parental employment now, along with lower crime rates and higher adult incomes in the future. How do we balance the needs of politics (“sell early education as optimistically as possible!”) with the realities of practice, policy, and governance (“Building comprehensive, high-quality early education systems is slow, difficult, boring work”)?
The narrative has to change, along the lines you describe above. I always cringe when I hear the overpromising by our politicians and elected officials and researchers who should know better. No one program, and no early education program, can fix the social inequalities we face. It is part of the solution, but it has to be connected with other solutions, especially the economic potential of children’s families, which I argue in the book. And I also repeat, almost ad nauseum, that learning accrues: no one learns anything in one or two years. We have to spark learning, sustain learning, and foster children’s eagerness for learning. That is why it’s critical to make strong connections between the one or two years of early learning with the K–12 system. We need to build on early investments. If people acted like we do in early learning on the stock market, we would be in big trouble.
There isn’t a national K–12 conversation happening this electoral cycle, even if we’re talking a fair amount about pre-K. But one of the key premises of your work is that early education programs should be thought of as part of a broader PreK–12 education system. That is, you argue that we shouldn’t — we can’t — separate the two. Why is this so critical?
Yes, I say in the book that we have created and sustained the division between our current early education programs and the current K–12 system, and we can and need to change it, structurally and organizationally. We do not have to contort ourselves in working with what have proven to be unreasonable and unworkable rules and regulations. Let’s clean them up — a new administration with courage could initiate that. Cass Sunstein did that for other areas. New America’s early education thinking comes the closest to what is needed, but we need to go even further.
Recreating our primary schools is critical, I argue in First Things First!, because it involves the crucial first decade of life, where we know that every child can learn amazingly well if given the opportunities. The U.S. is not providing those opportunities now for the majority of our children, and in fact, our current practices are leading to wider disparities and contributing to clogged social mobility, beginning with the early years. These inequalities are harder to address in later life, of course.
Tell me more about the book. What prompted you to write it?
The book reflects my journey from a sugar plantation village in Hawaii, where a Head Start program in summer of 1965 was big news. Growing up there and reflecting on the lives of my classmates convinced me that talent and potential are universally distributed, but opportunities are not. What I mean is that we must reimagine and recreate public education for all children during the first decade of their lives to respond to current demands. Our primary school system is outdated.
We must begin earlier, build on the amazing capacities of children to learn during this period, and confront legal, tax, and budgetary policies that are barriers to change. We have created the current education systems, and only we can change them to enhance their potential.
I had a responsibility to harness my experiences over fifty years, and to pay back part of my debt to the individuals and public policies that made me who I am today. The origins of this book are deeply personal and based on values of sacrificing for future generations and the power of social networks.
It’s February 2017, and a new administration is settling into the White House. How should they approach early education in the United States? What should their first few steps be?
A national administration and the new president have the bully pulpit. S/he can change mindsets, how we think about policies and programs in education. A new narrative is desperately needed in early learning. I’m trying to start that in First Things First!
Education is primarily a state responsibility. ESSA cements this for the future. However, one opportunity for a new presidential administration is to clean up Head Start. We do not need all of its thousands of regulations. Another is to select political appointees for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services who understand the importance of the PreK–3rd grade connections, and do not partake in the warfare between the two galaxies of early learning and K–12. We need bridgebuilders, dot connectors, intersectoral mavens, etc., between early ed and K-12 education.
Small amounts of discretionary funding, both existing funds and those yet to be authorized, could be used as levers to build toward a new system, rather than supporting the current ones. This strategy comes from my work as a private grantmaker. With the right people in place, the federal agencies can play this role. There is readiness for change at the local level, but innovators need support.
None of these things requires much money, but, together, could set the table for a time when funds might be available, and can create conditions for increased funding in the future.
There’s some public appetite for rethinking how we develop skills and knowledge through our education system. For instance, we’ve spent years trying to connect the end of K–12 education (high school graduation) with college and careers. Now, lo and behold, free higher education has taken off in public discourse. That is, we’re learning to think of higher education as a part of a linked, unified system of public education — not as something we tack onto the end as a supplement for some.
Free universal pre-K should be at that same level. I do not think it is there yet. Right now, it’s still something we think of as a separate prologue to the K–12 grades, rather than as an essential part of our education system. Obviously, we have work to do to create a PreK–college education system to prepare all for lifelong learning.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today