Policy Resource

Baby Champion on Morning Joe

Jan 21, 2012

Amidst the chatter last Thursday on the MSNBC program Morning Joe, Howard Dean once again emerged as a voice for babies in the debate on how to improve education in America.

Dean pointed out that our focus on education needs to hone in, not just on early childhood in general, but specifically on children from birth to age three. However, much like the last time he brought up this point, babies got brushed aside in the back and forth over which political party wants education reform and which wants to protect the status quo.

Governor Dean first shouted out “zero to three!” last May during a Morning Joe conversation about education reform with former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. This conversation was missing something really big, he said, and that something was what educators are doing about children ages 0 to 3. He pointed out that many deeply disadvantaged children start falling behind at birth and never catch up. The other panelists shrugged off this topic and said they had to focus on what they could do as educators when children come to school.

But Governor Dean had it right: we can’t hope to really improve learning in “big school” if we don’t make sure all children get a strong foundation for learning right from the start. We know that the first three years of life are a period of dramatic brain development, when children acquire the ability to think, speak, learn, and reason. Brains are built from the bottom up. Critical early experiences that shape brain architecture need to be positive ones that lay a sturdy foundation for all the learning, as well as health and social interactions, that follow. (Read more.)

Too many children miss out on these positive early learning experiences. Almost half of all infants and toddlers in America live in low-income families. More than one in four lives in outright poverty. Such deprivation at this sensitive period of development literally gets under their skins, embedding itself in their brain architecture and reverberating throughout their lives. An apt manifestation is the language gap that develops between very young children of differing socioeconomic status, which appears long before they enter kindergarten or even prekindergarten.

Early experiences take place in the context of relationships. That nurturing connection with a parent or other caregiver is what gives babies the confidence to explore the world around them and learn about all the amazing things within their reach. The social and emotional development fostered through relationships is interdependent with other domains of development, including cognitive, language, and physical. This means that the way we nurture a child’s heart is just as important as the way we nurture his mind and his body.

So where does all of this fit into education reform? Real education reform would have sound strategies to reach out to all at-risk babies regardless of setting—home, child care center, family child care, or Early Head Start (EHS)—to augment their parents’ efforts to support their early development. That means we also need caring professionals skilled in forging relationships with babies to facilitate their play and exploration, the laboratories of “baby learning”.

Key federal programs are the backbone of early childhood services. Early Head Start, which provides comprehensive early childhood services to poor infants and toddlers and their families, has been proven to have positive impacts on both babies and parents. But despite doubling the number of children EHS is funded to serve over the past few years, only a happy few—about 4 % of those eligible—find a spot there. The majority of babies have moms in the workforce, so child care is where much of their development unfolds. Disadvantaged children can reap the greatest benefit from high-quality child care, yet such care is often out of reach for low-income families, if it can be found at all. The Child Care and Development Fund helps families access care and supports some quality improvement, but funding is less in real terms today than a decade ago. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program is one of the brightest spots for young children in the Affordable Care Act; but it needs to be nurtured, expanded, and protected from repeal.

Babies are always learning. The quality of their early care experiences means they are learning either that the world is their oyster or that they don’t matter. You can be sure that individual children carry this perception with them into elementary school and beyond. So we hope Governor Dean continues to champion the need for an education strategy to support early development starting at birth—and that someday baby learning will be the center of a discussion on Morning Joe.