Obama & Early Childhood Education

Barack Obama is proposing significant new investments in early childhood education. More attention has been focused on his drive to recruit an army of new teachers but I believe the early childhood focus is equally important.

Why? As students age the gap between low performers and even average performers gets so wide that it becomes much harder to bridge it. The chart below illustrates this concept.

The Learning Gap

[This chart is for illustrative purposes only]
In the early grades – K-3 – the focus is on acquiring basic skills in reading and math. As soon as the shift to applying those skills to learning other subjects occurs in 4th and 5th grade the gap begins to widen. By the time students have reached 7th grade it is often so great that only heroic efforts can help. When a student drops out in 10th grade the cause can be traced all the way back to 2nd grade or even Kindergarten. Obama’s experience in the Chicago Public Schools taught him this lesson.

We can see this clearly in the product lines of the supplemental publishers. Their materials for the early grades are mostly targeted interventions, what a friend dubbed “workbookity” stuff. Their materials for secondary schools are comprehensive alternative textbooks. In secondary schools the gap has widened so far that you can’t teach all students with the same textbook because the low performers simply can’t read it.

Oral language is hard wired into humans but reading and writing are acquired skills – very similar to music in that practice helps enormously. Hence the focus on fluency in the National Reading Panel’s report. By the time students reach the 6th grade students who read regularly have often read at least 1 million more words than students who do not. That makes a huge difference.


So targeting the early grades – when the gap can be closed quickly and easily – is an essential part of school reform. Yes – it will take 12 years to see the benefits – but they will be long lasting throughout the lives of the children who benefit. I believe Obama has got this issue right.

Does this mean that there is no hope for kids in the higher grades? Absolutely not. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about video games for learning is that the research out of Harvard and other universities who are studying this topic shows that it disproportionately benefits students in the lower third of performance and that the biggest benefits come in the middle school years. The Tabula Digita study out of Florida is only the latest in a string of studies suggesting that this one way to reach these kids. One other interesting finding – for every 2 hours that kids play game they spend an hour reading about them.