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Lisa Klein, principal at Hestia Advising, is the guest editor of this issue of The Evaluation Exchange on early childhood education. With 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and at the Kauffman Foundation, she currently provides consultation services to early childhood and family support programs on their development, design, and evaluation.

The field of early childhood is entering middle age. Its infancy began in 1965 with the country’s first and only federally funded program—Head Start. The premise for supporting programs, research, and policies for young children, both then and now, is that intervention in the early years prepares children for later success. This means all our children—including those living in poverty and those in the working and middle classes. Now, nearly a half century later, where are we in reaching that goal?

Depending on what is being assessed, anywhere from 25%–60% of our young children are not ready to be successful when they begin kindergarten. Of the children who drop out of high school, half were behind before they even entered a kindergarten classroom. And half of those children will never make up their achievement gap.

Why is it that this gap remains when we know from over 40 years of research and program evaluation that high quality programs in the earliest years result in cognitive, social, and emotional gains in children, particularly low-income children of color? Why do we tolerate the gap when recent studies by economists examining the cost-benefit ratio of early intervention show tremendous payoffs?

Despite these findings we continue to debate whether the science is good enough and the results valid enough to believe. There are ongoing discussions about the economic cost and the value of providing the high quality interventions needed to produce positive results. In fact, we continue to spend both public and private sector money to repeatedly address many of the same questions only to get the same answers. What sense is there in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

In this time of intense scrutiny and accountability, let's be clear: For at least a decade we have known the kinds of interventions we need and the kinds of results to expect from them. Don't get me wrong—we have more detailed questions to answer and we must address them with the most rigor that science has to offer. However, we should ask ourselves two disturbing questions: Why do we continue to tolerate the achievement gap when we could remedy the problem? Will we still be in the same situation as we approach the end of the 21st century?

I wonder if the heart of the issue comes down to the very bedrock on which our country was established. I believe that individual responsibility should be cherished and protected. However, I do not believe this value means that parents must raise their children completely on their own. A lack of supports for families that would choose them is a recipe for failure for too many of our young children. As the field of early childhood enters its golden years, I hope the success of our youngest citizens will be the legacy of our oldest citizens and the key to a bright future for us all.

Lisa G. Klein, Ph.D.
Hestia Advising
P.O. Box 6756
Leawood, KS 66206
Tel: 913-642-3490

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