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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Obama, Romney and Their Advisors Fail to Outline Visions for Early Ed

Published:  October 17, 2012

Monday evening, for the first time, the Romney campaign offered some much-needed clarification on what Governor Romney would or wouldn’t do for early learning if he were elected president: Speaking at a mock debate hosted by the Columbia Teachers College, Phil Handy, a  co-chair of Romney's Education Policy Advisory Group, said that Romney would make Head Start more of an educational program, and criticized the current programm, saying it functions “more as a social experience.”

His statement is likely an interpretation of recent studies on what gains Head Start kids do and don’t make when in the program. Currently, while many of the  gains of Head Start have been shown to “fade out” by third grade, research suggests that thecognitive and social-emotional gains children make in high-quality pre-K settings could be replicated in Head Start.

But calling Head Start a “social experience” is both patronizing and off-target. Head Start is in need of improvement, which the Obama administration is pursuing through its recompetition program. But what does Handy mean by “educational”? Is he suggesting the program focus more on academic skills like pre-reading and math? The Obama Administration’s Head Start reforms will soon incorporate the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System, also known as CLASS, to augment the administration’s evaluations of Head Start providers. That tool, which is already employed by Head Start programs to figure out which teachers need additional training, should help boost teacher quality and make the program better at preparing kids for school. But it’s unclear whether Handy or Romney are aware of these reforms, and whether their stress on academics would translate into classroom instruction that is developmentally appropriate  for young children—not to mention the fact that the social-emotional gains children are making in Head Start are crucial.

The Obama surrogates have not done a whole lot better when it comes to clarifying the President’s vision for early education during his second term (which is odd given that the new Head Start regulations were designed by his administration). “You’ll see more from him on early learning,” remarked Jon Schnur, an education advisor for the Obama campaign, last night during another mock debate. That debate was between Schnur and Martin West, who co-chairs K12 policy for the Romney campaign, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.  Schnur also described Obama’s commitment to early learning during his first term as “relentless.” The Obama administration has shown leadership on early learning through small initiatives, like the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and the U.S. Department of Education now includes an Office of Early Learning, but can we qualify Obama’s attention to this issue as “relentless”? And what exactly should we expect in the future? Both statements were too vague to indicate that the campaign has done much serious thinking about early learning, especially when compared to Obama’s well-articulated early childhood platform in 2008.

In the Presidential debates, education has appeared as a topic of discussion a number of times—though neither candidate seems eager to debate his specific policy vision. In last night’s debate, President Obama answered a question about pay inequality by pointing to his expansion of the Pell Grant program (which helps both men and women attend college), and both Obama and Romney pointed to better education as a potential solution for limiting the availability of AK47’s to criminals. Over the course of the two debates, both campaigns have mentioned or alluded to specific programs including Race to the Top and the Common Core, but both candidates’ messages seem to boil down to the idea that “education is good,” and little more. Rarely does the other candidate engage and respond to an education-related comment. Given the sheer number of times the candidates have danced around education policy while debating, isn’t it time for a solid exchange between the two about their plans for education?

Last night also provided another hint of how the candidates see the connection between children’s success in school and their interactions with their parents. Once again last night, Romney spoke to the importance of having two parents in a child’s life, though he didn’t advocate for one parent staying at home, which he did do at NBC’s Education Nation Summit in September.

Here is what Romney said last night:“We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the — the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.”

And here is his similar statement from Education Nation:“The involvement of parents, and particularly where there could be two parents, is an enormous advantage for the child. So both in terms of early education and continuing throughout their career having certainly an advantage to have two parents, but even then to have one parent that stays closely involved with the education of the child and can be at home in those early years of education can be extraordinarily important.”

It’s true that two-parent families today generally do have more resources to put towards raising children, namely because they have two incomes. But Romney promoting marriage as a policy strategy is painfully out-of-touch with the modern working family. Thirty five percent of children in America are growing up in a single-parent household, according to the most recent datafrom Kids Count. And  parents at all socioeconomic levels are more likely to both be working full-time than ever before. Romney advocating two-parent households as a strategy for good parenting, child care and early education is an indicator that he hasn’t thought through early education and family issues enough.

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