Expert urges new approach to improve early education
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 3, 2016....Massachusetts senators planning to recommend strategies to support the state's children heard a pitch Wednesday from a child development expert to take a multi-pronged approach inspired by the innovation in fields like biotechnology and health care.
The group of lawmakers, assembled last week by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to conduct an interdisciplinary study of policy areas affecting children, met for the first time Wednesday to receive a presentation from Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Shonkoff contrasted the fight to cure cancer against the world of education -- where, he said, income-based and race-based achievement gaps still exist despite the expansion of early childhood education.
Medical researchers are in a "relentless pursuit" to completely cure cancer and keep working towards that goal after making progress with new developments, Shonkoff said.
"People could say, "We've been trying to cure that disease for years, we haven't found anything, what's the point?'" he said. "The point is we keep going, we keep working until we figure it out," he said. "We have to bring that same mentality into early childhood and investments in education. It's doable. It's absolutely doable, but we have to create an environment in which we will allow people to try new things."
Shonkoff said that early childhood "investment portfolios" throughout the nation lack a research and development component on the policy side. He gave the example of the pharmaceutical industry as a field where extended research and experimentation time often drives success.
"There is no R&D dimension in the early childhood field, and it's easy to understand why," Shonkoff said. "An R&D dimension requires people to have space to take risks, to try things, to fail, and to not have to worry that funding will run out ... That's how big breakthroughs happen."
Rosenberg last week announced the launch of a "Kids First" initiative, intended to look at a variety of policy areas that he said Wednesday would "ensure that every child is a resilient child who can grow into a productive adult."
"We know a lot," Rosenberg said. "We need to identify those things and embed them into our policies, programs and investments so that we can get the best result. This effort starts with prenatal care and pre-k, through elementary school, junior high and high school on to postsecondary education, whether it be college or apprenticeship or other forms of continuing education."
The group, led by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, is expected to produce a report "not so long from now" that will "really be more in the nature of a blueprint to help us see how we can move forward," Rosenberg said.
Shonkoff, a pediatrician and professor, sketched out policy focuses that could reduce risk factors for young children, including child care and early education, primary health care, early interventions, substance abuse services, child welfare, workforce development, community development and housing.
"There are so many policy and program levers that can be pulled," he told the senators and staff members gathered for his presentation.
DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, has said that the initiative's goal is to unite "individual sections" where "good things are happening," pointing to early and elementary education, anti-poverty supports, mental health and nutrition.
"We just want to put this under one umbrella and move our kids forward," he said.
According to Rosenberg's office, the effort is modeled after a similar "Work First" initiative launched last year, another informal convening of senators that focused on welfare-to-work and job training programs.
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