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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Reauthorize an Early Start and a Great Finish | Commentary

As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act —commonly known as No Child Left Behind—it’s a great time to consider better policies for all children. No Child Left Behind wasted a great deal of effort and money and produced too few benefits because it addressed problems in our educational system too late in the lives of children and removed incentives for schools to develop the full range of intellectual, emotional and social skills necessary for individuals to flourish in the 21st century economy. ESEA should be revised to start with quality early learning and continue with K-12 education that develops the whole child.

Many disadvantaged children (and many of the schools that serve them) fail because the children have had less than a fighting chance to succeed when they enter kindergarten. Research shows that early learning is essential for school readiness, lifelong learning and achievement. If early learning isn’t made an integral component of the ESEA reauthorization, America will find it difficult to reach its goal of improving its educational system and producing high school graduates who are prepared for success in college and career.

Unfortunately, too many children are born into families that do not provide effective early learning. The family is the greatest contributor to the success (or failure) of children and to upward social and economic mobility. In many quarters of society, the American family is under great stress. The way parents interact with and attach to their children, the amount of time they spend with them and the resources they have to provide intellectual and social stimulation inside and outside the home greatly affect their children’s school readiness and, consequently, their potential for leading flourishing lives in school and beyond.

Research reveals dramatic differences in achievement test scores and in social and character skills across children from different economic and social groups. Children of college-educated mothers achieve at a far higher rate than children whose mothers have a high school degree or less. These gaps emerge long before children enter kindergarten — and are difficult in school to close no matter how well we configure schools to remediate problems that could have been prevented before schooling starts.

Fortunately, many states and localities have begun to utilize quality early childhood education as an effective strategy for preventing achievement gaps and, ultimately, reducing inequality through development of critical skills. ESEA would be greatly improved if it helped states connect early learning and preschool with K-12 education.

The country would also benefit if ESEA took into account the importance of teaching and measuring character skills, not just cognitive skills, in evaluating school performance. High quality early childhood education works because it promotes both cognitive and character skills. That balanced approach is largely abandoned in public education once a child begins elementary school, something that’s foolhardy considering what we know about the importance of character skills. Persistence, impulse control, self-awareness, consideration and team work are essential skills in today’s labor market and are better predictors of success in life than the current battery of tests we now employ to measure cognitive ability and rate the performance of schools.

Unfortunately, in the drive to hold students, parents, teachers and schools accountable for achievement, No Child Left Behind has made them accountable for developing only some of the skills necessary for a productive life. We have placed far too much emphasis on developing cognitive skills while neglecting character skills that greatly contribute to individual success.

America’s children deserve an education that creates skills that help them become prosperous adults. American public policy should be based on accurate measures of the success of its schools and their ability to create upward mobility. Character skills can be developed and should be measured long before the ultimate test of employability in the job market. Individuals cannot compete for jobs without intelligence and character, and America cannot compete in the global marketplace without a first class workforce.

ESEA reauthorization gives us a chance to correct some glaring wrongs in the current legislation. We can achieve substantially greater educational, health and economic benefits only when we recognize that quality education starts early — before kindergarten — and develops and measures the full range of skills that make people successful. After 14 years, it’s time to look at the evidence and understand that the road not yet taken is the road to take. The alternative is slow progress that ultimately fails the test of a lifetime.

James J. Heckman is a Nobel laureate in economics at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Center for the Economics of Human Development. His research on the economics of early childhood development and skill formation is made available through the Heckman Equation project. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.

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