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Florida School Boards Association and Association of School Superintendents -- Tampa

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Dec. 2, 2011, before the annual gathering of the Florida School Board Association and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents in Tampa.

It is a privilege to be here this morning in front of so many people who make a difference in so many lives. Each of you is a leader, and I admire leaders – people who, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “dare mighty things.” Upon your work depends the very future of community and country. Aristotle told us 2,500 years ago: “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

Ninety percent of America’s children to this very day attend public school. I was one of those children – a full product of public education…a graduate of Manatee High School in Bradenton, Florida, and then the University of Florida. One of nine children, I grew up on a chicken farm in the snowbelt country of upstate New York. Then the farm went broke, and so we moved to Florida. “Land of opportunity,” my parents had been told, and so it was. But it is less so now, and that is central to my theme today.

All nine of us were graduated from Florida or Florida State. Our only options were a state university or a junior college. They turned out to be wonderful choices. (Not incidentally, it is worth your knowing that six of us turned out to be teachers.) Jobs then were plentiful. They are not now. Skills were less necessary than they are today.

I tell you today that the greatest American “invention” was not the light bulb or the telephone or even the Internet. It was the public school. Public school gave our country an abundance of smart and skilled people able to invent and innovate, compete and prosper – and able to hope and able to lead. High-quality public school, built upon democracy, has been the single most important ingredient to the continuing success of the United States of America.

Today public school is under siege. You witness that everywhere – for example in Steven Brill’s new book, “Class Warfare,” or Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” An abundance of books, all those op-eds, so many speeches, a torrent of opinions. Public school is hammered everywhere for what ails America. And even as so many bemoan public schools for not doing enough, our elected representatives continue to diminish public school resources – nowhere more so than in Florida. What a shame. You know first-hand the damage being wrought. We cannot afford to stand by and let this happen.

Does that mean public school should be immune to change? Of course not. Each of you is, in fact, an agent of change. And, yes, agents of change need to step up their game. All institutions tend to atrophy over time. All of us need to be regularly refreshed in mind and spirit, and engage in robust discussion about how to do better and get better. We surely need – without diminishing any basic principles – to do some things differently. We surely need, among other things, to: Find and compensate and retain the very best teachers, and give them incentives to earn even more. Do the same with principals. Truly welcome parents into our schools – and eagerly collaborate with them in the education of their children. Believe in each and every child. Set high expectations and high standards, and give each and every child the support to succeed. Employ the latest technology. Push for a longer school day and year – one that fits the America of the 21st century, not the agrarian America of the late 19th century.

Most of all, we need to bring the children to formal school much more ready – and, yes, eager – to learn. The path to that is for all of us, beginning with parents, to understand the possibilities before us in a child’s earliest years. We have ample evidence of the power of those early years – the power of high-quality early childhood development, care and education.

Listen to this from a book called “The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn”: “What we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars Rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day.”

Now listen to this from the latest issue of New Republic in an article headlined “The Two-Year Window: The Science of Babies and Brains.” Jonathan Cohn makes the “connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life” and goes on to say: “The first two years, however, happen to be the period of a child’s life in which we invest the least,” adding this: “When it comes to early childhood, public policy is lagging far behind science – with disastrous consequences.”

Think this morning, please, in terms of “feeder patterns” – words you educators already use to talk about the progression from elementary school to middle school to high school. Now think, please, about the first several years of life as the “feeder pattern” to public school.

Think with me, too, in terms of “truth and consequences.” I start with a half-dozen “truths”:

No. 1: Children grow, as you know so well, not only cognitively and physically, but also socially, emotionally and, yes, spiritually – with a caring, knowledgeable parent as the single most crucial factor.

No. 2: 90 percent of brain development occurs during the first five years of life, setting the path for all of life.

No. 3: We know from research that a dollar spent wisely up front in a child’s life has a return of seven dollars or more that won’t need to be spent on police and prosecution and prison – not to mention the billions we spend on remedial education.

No. 4: Ours is a country where two-thirds of mothers with children between birth and age 5 work outside the home. For most parents (including three of my own children with their children), child care is the very real world. Child care is the “feeder pattern” to the public school system. Only high-quality child care contributes to positive and real outcomes for children. Meanwhile, up to 80 percent of child care in America is not much more than “storage and warehousing.”

No. 5: National research tells us that about 30 percent of all children enter formal school significantly behind; most of those children then get further behind.

No. 6: We also know that a third of all children entering kindergarten cannot pay attention in class. If you can’t pay attention, you won’t learn…no matter how smart you are. Even if we know all this, we don’t act as though we really know it.

Thus, we are challenged by these five real-world consequences:

No. 1: The research tells us that if a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, by the end of fourth grade, 88 of those 100 remain mediocre readers. It is not impossible, but it is terribly difficult to get children back on track if the early years have been neglected.

No. 2: Up to 30 percent of children at the end of third grade cannot read with minimum proficiency.

No. 3: More than half of sophomores in high school cannot read at grade level.

No. 4: We once were No. 1 in the world in both high school and college graduation rates. Today we are, respectively, No. 20 and No. 16. That is no recipe for global competiveness.

No. 5: Two years ago, a group of senior retired generals and admirals reported: “75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 (cannot) enlist in the military because they fail to graduate high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” How alarming. Is this not a national security issue?

Fifteen years ago, I could have told you practically nothing of what I am sharing with you this morning. For 35 years I was a reporter, editor and then publisher at seven newspapers. Interviewed the likes of Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton. I also am a husband and the father of five who back then was completely unaware of the principles of high-quality early childhood development, care and education.

Then, in 1996, the governor of Florida asked me to serve on his Commission on Education, a two-year civic assignment to look at teaching and learning in the next millennium. Somehow I was hornswoggled into chairing the task force on “school readiness.” What I learned led me to retire a dozen years ago to spend all my energies to see what difference could be made so children would have a much better chance to be successful in school and in life.

I’ve learned so much, and continue to do so. Just two examples:

One: The author Clayton Christensen, in his book “Disrupting Class,” tells us: “A rather stunning body of research…suggests that starting…reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle or high school, is far too late. By some estimates,” he writes, “98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”

Two: Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the nationally known professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, reports: “We now know that adversity early in life can not only disrupt brain circuits that lead to problems with literacy, it can also affect the development of the cardiovascular system and the immune system and metabolic regulatory systems, and lead not only to more problems learning in school but also greater risk for diabetes and hypertension and heart disease and cancer and depression and substance abuse.”

You and I live in an ever-more-connected world. If we want for our own families – and for everyone else’s – a community and country full of optimistic, contributing people, we cannot hide from those who will grow up to do us, and themselves, great harm. For practical, economic and moral reasons, we must be mindful of how everyone is doing. If we want safe and secure neighborhoods, if we want less crime, if we want more people to grow up to own homes and cars, and more people to share the basic costs of societal well-being, then we must act upon the extraordinary evidence of the power of early investment and the power to grow children who dream and have a real chance to achieve those dreams.

Though I always considered myself a journalist first, I also was a executive running a very profitable $300 million business with more than 2,000 employees. I knew about return on investment. Today I know even better that the development of a skilled workforce absolutely depends on early childhood investment. Indeed, such investment will bring the single greatest return for the future of children and for the future of a country we love.

Ours is a country where half of our high school graduates lack the written, spoken, thinking and problem-solving skills that employers seek. The wisest, most cost-effective solution isn’t in fixing fourth grade, seventh grade or somewhere in high school, but rather getting the earliest years right so a child can have momentum throughout life.

I give you a poignant example. This summer I visited a child care center where I read “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to 3 and 4 year olds. The cover showed Mr. MacDonald in overalls with a straw hat and bunny ears popping through. Not one child knew what a bunny rabbit looked like, or almost any other animal. They simply had never received the fundamentals of early literacy, a process that begins at birth or before. Most of these children are going to be way behind in first grade – and maybe forever. It made me want to cry. These children are coming to your schools – our schools.

Can it be any wonder that half of all teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it? Don’t tell me that it’s about the money because that’s not the decisive reason for most teachers who depart. They knew what the money was when they decided to become a teacher, as I also knew that journalism didn’t pay a lot when I entered that craft. But just like me, they were, and are, idealistic people…eager to make a difference for the better in this world and in other people’s lives (even as they remember a favorite teacher who did just that for them).

They come to teach, and then they find out so much of their work isn’t about teaching – but rather about controlling, managing, triaging. Teaching – real teaching -- is the joy, and they don’t get to do enough of it. Meanwhile, there isn’t enough time to learn from master teachers – the best of the experienced “old hands.” Isn’t enough time because teachers have so many other obligations these days.

I pause to note that most people would suspect I voted for the class-size amendment back in 2002. Actually I did not. I thought then, and think now, that there is precious little research to justify such. Truth to tell, the powerful ingredient is not how many children are in the classroom, but rather how ready and eager and self-disciplined they are. Though I might rather have 18 children in my first-grade classroom, contemplate that a third of them perhaps are not really read to learn…are acting up and out…and how do I handle that? So I would rather have more children provided that they have excitement in their eyes and minds…ready to listen and to learn…eager to raise their hands…good readers already, or shortly will be.

To this very day I read at least a book a week, and quite frequently more. That is mostly, for me, history and biographies and good fiction. The very first book I can remember my mother reading to me was “The Little Engine That Could.” Much of life is, or should be as that book says, “I think I can…I think I can…I think I can,” and then going on to doing. That is the train track of a meaningful life, and that philosophy furnishes the best stories of human history – people who thought they just might be able to do something important and had the gumption to do so.

I am always nervous in speaking. Want to be nervous. Makes me do better. I am, like you, a blend of the insecure and the secure. That’s healthy. It makes us do more; it makes us do better. But it is just plain unhealthy – and, frankly, tragic – that we have tens of thousands of 5 and 6 year olds in Florida who didn’t get the basics of early learning and literacy, are already way behind, and are already sure they can’t make it, can’t do the work. So, of course, they act up and out – and you know the consequences of that.

If I were a kindergarten or first-grade teacher, or a principal of an elementary school, I’d fall in love with the children before they came to my classroom. I would find out which child care sites “feed into” my school. I’d go see the center director, and make that person my friend and ally. I’d try to make sure that what each of us was doing was aligned – that is, connected in terms of curriculum and professional development.

The best you and I can do in this world is serve as a good example. From my community of Miami-Dade -- at the cutting edge of American pluralism and larger in population than 16 states – came the leadership to pass a constitutional amendment to make pre-K available for every 4 year old in Florida. (We now need to insist that some improvements be made, including pre- and post-assessments and an evidence-based curriculum for all children.) From my community came the leadership to pass a dedicated funding source for early intervention and prevention that means $100 million extra each year for such matters as incentives for higher-quality child care, programs for positive parenting, and higher-quality after-school care. From my community came The Children’s Movement of Florida, launched just 15 months ago and now with 300,000 followers and goals focusing on making children the No. 1 priority – higher than roads, higher than prisons, higher than anything. How can it possibly make sense that we spend $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile and less than $3,000 for a child in pre-K?

The Movement needs your collaboration. I am eager to figure out ways we can collaborate in two specific projects:

  • One: In the weeks to come, local United Ways from 10 regions across Florida will be reaching out to their superintendents to participate in a statewide mentoring initiative focused on children in VPK through third grade. Your participation, as a superintendent and a school district, will be crucial.
  • Two: A study released just a few days ago from the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families showed that Florida still has more than a half-million children in our state who do not have health insurance -- something none of us should be wiling to accept. Because the health of a child has a direct correlation to that child's ability to be successful in school, The Children’s Movement is engaging in a statewide, targeted outreach and enrollment initiative to enhance already-existing local KidCare outreach programs through the mobilizing, training and deploying of volunteers. While we are looking to work with child care providers and major hospitals from across the state, there is no better way to reach the majority of these uninsured children then through the school system. Many of your districts already engage in effective KidCare outreach programs -- including sending mailers home in children's backpacks, recording robocalls to remind parents to sign their children up, and tying registration for KidCare to the application for free- and reduced-price lunch. Whatever the mechanism, process or means that work for your community may be, we must agree that ensuring that children have access to quality health care and health insurance should be a priority for all school districts. Subsequent to today's event, I will send each of you an e mail (provided you've given me your contact information) and I'd encourage each of the superintendents here today to put someone on their staff in contact with The Movement's health care coordinator, Nick Duran, to begin to have a conversation about how we can make this possible. For these initiatives to be successful – both reading and insurance -- we will need you as not only a willing, but also an enthusiastic partner.

I do not want anyone to tell me that we cannot afford to do right by children. How shortsighted. How foolish for the future of America. To quote The New York Times columnist David Brooks: “The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that that are misallocated.” I say this in the full spirit of patriotism and with no partisan politics: If we can spend $800 billion of the people’s money these past eight years to bring democracy to Iraq, then surely we can do right by America’s children. Do not tell me that times are tough – I know they are – and that children should wait for “better times.” I reject that totally because even in so-called “better times,” children were never as high a priority as they should have been.

In a state of wisdom, in a country of wisdom, children would be the highest priority of elected leaders – higher than roads, higher than prisons, higher than anything. Why should we settle for anything less than affordable, high-quality basics for all children (the same quality basics any of us would want for our own children and grandchildren)? Why would we not want this for all children? This is simply the “American dream.”

To do better, we must build a real movement for children – a movement defined as being about everyone’s child. Must build the parental awareness so parents know what their children need to reach their highest potential. Must build the parent, public and political will.

I believe in the power of the people. I believe in the power within each of us. But you must believe in yourself as well as the mission. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, told us more than a century and a half ago: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential…for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”

The “possible” before us seems so clear to me. We have known for a very long time what we really need to do. I quote Proverbs, verse 22, chapter 6, where we learn: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” I give the last words to Fred Rogers with whom my children grew up, and perhaps yours as well. “Our goal as a nation,” he said, “must be to make sure that no child is denied the chance to grow in knowledge and character from the very first years.” In Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he added, “every child is welcome into the world of learning – not just a few, not just ones from certain neighborhoods but every child.”

May God bless each of us and everyone's child.

Thank you.