Thanks to Wednesday Journal for sponsoring the discussion about the academic achievement gap and to all the thoughtful respondents. And thank you to Police Chief Rick Tanksley for capturing a common theme running through the diverse perspectives: “Among the best investments we can make is high quality preschool and early childhood programs,” he wrote in last week’s Viewpoints section. “This is a way to close the achievement gap and reduce crime.”

We must now muster the will as a community to act on this insight.

In Oak Park, we have formed partnerships to successfully promote commercial development, our downtown, our multifamily residential inventory, tourism and the arts, and, of course, diversity. The Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education maintains that the time has come to formulate and implement a “Partnership for Human Development.” The partnership would be responsible for a comprehensive, sustained system of support for the families of young children and professional development for early childhood staff. The village board is considering a proposal to include in its 2008 budget support for a planning process for a five-year roll-out of the partnership. The single most important step we can take to address the achievement gap is to plan for and implement this Partnership for Human Development. Here’s why:

Decades’ worth of study and analysis have revealed some critical characteristics of the achievement gap phenomenon. It starts very early and persists. Researchers have found that children may enter kindergarten with as much as a 2,000-word deficit in vocabulary compared with their peers. The gap tends to widen during the early years of schooling and remains constant after age 8. Remediation efforts which occur after the commencement of formal schooling are largely ineffective at current levels of spending.

The acquisition of skills, both cognitive and socio-emotional (including motivation, perseverance, and tenacity), which are crucial to success in school and adult life begin at birth. Skill building is a progressive process: the earlier skills are acquired, the easier it is to master subsequent skill sets. Consequently what occurs before a child walks through the kindergarten door is crucial to establishing the level playing field which enables not just some, but all of our children to succeed.

Without a sound foundation, the most exquisite and expensive building will fail. In Oak Park we have built impressive educational structures but ignored the foundation. Together, our primary and secondary schools have budgets well in excess of $100 million. Despite indisputable research proving learning begins at birth, significant public investment in education does not begin until a child walks in the kindergarten door at age 5.

Delivering results
The first reason to make a community-wide commitment to early childhood is that it delivers results. In fact, 40 years of research establishes that exposure to enriched early childhood environments leads to:

• lower rates of participation in special education;

• lower rates of grade retention;

• higher rates of on-time graduation from high school;

• higher incomes;

• higher incidence of home ownership;

• lower delinquency and crime rates; and

• lower rates of adult welfare recipients.

Best return on community investment
Second, in an era of constrained public resources, commitment to early childhood yields exceptional return on investment. Arthur Rolnick, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank calculates a rate of return for high-quality early childhood programs of up to 18 percent. This is achieved by positively influencing factors such as the need for special education services, drop-out rates, law enforcement costs, and employment opportunities. According to Rolnick, “early childhood development should be at the top of any economic development list.” And Dr James J. Heckman, University of Chicago 2000 Nobel Laureate in Econcomics, after reviewing the data has advised, “The real question is how to use the available [public] funds wisely. The best evidence supports the policy prescription: Invest in the very young.”

Link to outside funding
Third, development of a sound, well-researched plan positions Oak Park to secure external support for its partnership. The State of Illinois and the federal government have increased funding for early childhood initiatives. In particular, if we are able to present a five-year plan leading to comprehensive support to families of young children and professional development for early childhood staff, we would have an enhanced opportunity to benefit from Illinois Preschool for All funding.

Actualizing our values
Finally, a Partnership for Human Development brings us closer to realizing our most deeply held community values. Oak Park’s Diversity Statement asserts that “The Village of Oak Park commits itself to a future ensuring equal access … The success of this endeavor prepares us to live and work in the 21st century … Oak Park has committed itself to equality because it is desirable for us and our children.” It is time to write the next chapter of Oak Park’s commitment to diversity and equal access, and to reinvigorate its national reputation for leadership on cutting edge issues. It is time to assure that all of our children have an equal opportunity and the best possible chance to succeed in school and beyond.

Eric Gershenson is writing on behalf of The Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education.

Join the discussion on social media!