SALT LAKE CITY — A child's preschool years are critical for learning, a federal education official said Tuesday, and, while missed opportunities can be made up later, it takes twice the effort and the cost.
"I think high-quality early education is an essential foundation for every child," said Libby Doggett, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. "Every child is born with great potential, and we've got to give them the opportunity to develop that."
Doggett said parents are a child's first and best teacher. But in too many households, she said, children spend their days in low-quality child care or sitting in front of a television at a neighbor or relative's home while their parents work.
Those children are "coming out on the short end of the deal," Doggett said, and it is both good for the child and in society's interest to provide those families with access to high-quality learning opportunities.
"Those are the children I'm here to talk about, because we as a society are missing out on their potential," she said.
Doggett was in Salt Lake City to participate in a panel discussion on early learning technology hosted by the Waterford Institute. Other panelists included Waterford Institute President Benjamin Heuston, United Way of Utah County President Bill Hulterstrom, and Susan DeVenny, executive director of South Carolina's First Steps to School Readiness.
The panelists spoke about the need to address the opportunity gaps in education as children are prepared for a future workforce comprising jobs that don't yet exist and technology that has not yet been invented.
"The pathways are still opaque," Heuston said. "I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this revolution or this disruption. I think it’s going to continue to happen."
He said the most effective early learning programs are those built around a child's natural inclination to learn. Heuston gave the example of UPSTART, a home-based preschool program developed by the Waterford Institute that adapts to the individual student and is designed to be used for 15 minutes each day.
The Utah Legislature approved $3 million in ongoing funding for UPSTART during the most recent legislative session, expanding the number of families that are able to take advantage of the software.
Heuston said it's important to understand that there are no shortcuts in learning. Too many people view education as a single event, like an immunization, when it is actually more similar to a lifestyle of diet and exercise, he said.
"It's something that is effortful," Heuston said. "It has to be structured and systematic."
When used properly, technology is a tool that can improve learning, teaching, and the relationship between educators and parents, Doggett said. Technology is not being used in schools around the country as much as she'd like, she said, but she praised Utah as being on the forefront of early learning initiatives.
In addition to UPSTART, Doggett pointed to the success of Granite School District's high-quality preschool program, which has benefited from a unique public-private funding model that lawmakers considered for expansion in the state.
Educators are sometimes skeptical of new technologies, she said, out of a concern that students will be distracted by the devices or that schools will invest large sums into software and hardware that will quickly be rendered obsolete.
"I can see how putting a lot of money into technology could be difficult," Doggett said. "We’re still learning a lot, so you want to tread carefully, but I also think you do need to take those first few steps."
Those first steps, she said, include upgrades to school infrastructure and efforts to improve technology access for all families. In addition, it's critical that educators be trained on the effective implementation of new technology, Doggett said.
"It isn’t just technology, and it isn’t just software. You’ve got to invest in your people," she said. "If you’re not going to provide the training and the support for the teachers and the parents to learn to use the technology, then it’s really been wasted."
Policymakers in Utah traditionally prefer to begin new initiatives with limited pilot programs and structured implementation as opposed to rapid statewide rollouts. Doggett said a slow and steady pace, coupled with rigorous evaluation, is responsible when considering the finite resources available to schools.
She also said national polling shows overwhelming support for a dramatic expansion of early learning initiatives, and, each year, new students are entering the public education system potentially underprepared.
"We need to act now," Doggett said. "We can't waste time."
Hulterstrom said educators need to be proactive about implementing technology and providing opportunities to students, even if state and federal funding are slow to arrive.
"Do not wait for money," he said. "We need more money. We want more money. But I think we too often use that as our excuse not to do what we need to do now."
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