State proves it’s a leader in early education

By Sandra J. Skolnik

August 4, 2006

Once again, the people of Maryland have bragging rights about the state’s vision for its youngest children. Over the past two years, the governor and the General Assembly have consolidated all the state’s programs that support early care and education, moving them to the Maryland State Department of Education.
This is far more than a bureaucratic reshuffling. It is now widely understood that learning begins at birth. All the experiences children have from birth through age 4 – playing with other children, listening to songs and stories, using crayons and pencils, and exploring the world around them – build important social and cognitive skills that will be the foundation of success in school and in life.

Consequently, it is critical that children spend their days in environments that nurture relationships and provide opportunities to build these skills. Experts have moved beyond the notion that 3- and 4-year-olds should spend time in “sit-down” programs laboring to master pencil-and-paper tasks. However, there are age-appropriate skills, both social and cognitive, that children should master before they arrive at school. These include the ability to follow directions and to learn from listening, to get along with other children (most of the time), and to have some familiarity with print and numbers.

In Maryland, only about 60 percent of entering kindergartners have these skills. This is similar to other states around the nation. Without extraordinary intervention, the children who arrive at school without the expected skills are likely to struggle throughout their school years.

Despite the clear connection between early experience and success in school, there has been an almost complete separation between the early-care community and school systems, on both the state and local level, across the country.

Last month, Maryland became the first (and so far, only) state to overcome this divide. The governor completed the transfer, begun by the General Assembly in 2005, of all state operations and funding pertaining to early care and education to the State Department of Education.

At the urging of parents, advocates, and early-care providers, the 2005 General Assembly consolidated in the education department all programs that support quality in child care: licensing, credentialing, and accreditation of child-care providers and programs; support for training of providers; and grants to improve quality. Also, the legislature moved to the department two statewide networks that support families in providing nurturing environments for children – the network of regional child-care resource centers and the network of family support centers.

Last month, the consolidation became complete with the move to the education department of the state’s child-care subsidy program, a critical component of the child-care infrastructure that helps low-income families pay for care.

The department has met the challenge of incorporating these programs by creating a new Division of Early Childhood Development – a division that embraces the goal of ensuring that young children have the nurturing and developmentally appropriate experiences that prepare them for school. Other states are watching, but not yet following, Maryland’s lead.

Consolidating early care and education with K-to-12 education is a move supported by research, logic, and economics, creating a continuum of development from birth through grade 12. And yet, it breaks with decades of thinking that held “education” in the K-12 silo while state involvement in early care has been largely the purview of social service departments. It required vision from Maryland’s governor, legislative leaders, and state school superintendent to make a break with past thinking and with entrenched bureaucratic interests. It remains to be seen whether other states will muster the political will to do so.

In the meantime, all of Maryland’s young children will benefit from having the state’s involvement in early care housed at the education department in a division that values the work of early educators, understands the role of early experience in school success, and is committed to (and responsible for) good outcomes for all Maryland’s children.

Sandra J. Skolnik is executive director of the Maryland Family Network.

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