behind the film urging investment in pre-school education

Maria Hernandez, a single mother of four in Waco, Texas, ferries her children to school in between two job shifts, midnight to 6am, and 8am to 5pm. Shannon and Donnie Poff, parents to a four-year-old son in Henderson, Nevada, split childcare between staggered work shifts – Shannon as a nail technician during the day, Donnie as a security guard during the graveyard hours. Wahnika Johnson took time off work to care for her seven-month-old daughter in Yorktown, Virginia, but worries about finding any affordable childcare once she returns. All three families – black, white, Hispanic, middle- and working-class, three different states – require childcare to stay afloat. And as depicted in the documentary No Small Matter, all three are cast adrift among a sea of challenges – access, cost, lack of quality options – in the decentralized and devalued Wild West of early childhood education in the US.

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No Small Matter, a 74-minute film directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel and narrated by executive producer Alfre Woodard, examines the frustrating state of early childhood education in the United States, a country with no universal pre-kindergarten system. The film endeavors to be “not an exposé, but a wake-up call” to the recognize the bedrock importance of education in the first five years of life to opportunities down the road, and reprioritize the country’s spending therein; the educational landscape it reveals is rife with access sinkholes compounding systemic inequity and at odds with decades of research on child brain development, the established pay-offs of early childhood investment, and the serious, studied work of pre-school educators.

Early childhood education is “the foundation of our future”, Dr Rosemarie Truglio, the senior vice-president for curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop and featured expert, told the Guardian. “We now know so much about how these early years are critical foundational years. We know that their brain is developing at a very rapid pace, and we know that parent-child, adult-child interactions are critical in developing these neural connections.” Truglio, who received a doctorate in developmental psychology, has spent over two decades developing programming for Sesame Street built on the explosion research into infant and toddler brains.

Engagement and stimulation in those early years are critical for so-called “executive function skills” – practice in delayed gratification, focusing and shifting attention, managing emotions, listening – that are crucial to stability in later life. “Without these processing skills,” said Truglio, “it’s hard for me to reach and to teach your child in the classroom,” no matter the academic setting once children enter America’s education system in kindergarten, usually around five.

Despite our rapid advancements in understanding of the youngest brains, social changes, economic demands on families, and the haphazard, under-invested landscape of childcare centers have made it significantly harder for parents to set up their child for success. As No Small Matter illustrates, when it comes to early childhood education, parents are often caught between a rock and a hard place. In 1950, just 12% of all mothers with children under age five were in the workplace; today, it’s 65%, though early childcare has not shifted en masse to reflect the reality of working parent households. Parents like Johnson, working longer, more unpredictable hours for stagnated wages (and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent recession), are desperate to find care for young children, but in 28 states, early childcare by the year is more expensive that public college, and just 10% are considered “quality”. The burden of navigating this scramble falls on already stressed parents.

In some cases, a patchwork of federal grants such as Head Start, subsidies for early childhood education from the US military, or community organizations such as Avance, which works with ESL families such as Hernandez’s in Waco, can fill in the gaps. But many children slip through, and enter the formal education system with the deck already stacked against them. The gap often compounds with time; by three, as Woodard explains in No Small Matter, children from low-income families have heard an average of 30 million fewer words than higher-income peers. Thousands of extra dollars on enrichment activities such as museums, pre-school programs and educational materials means that by the first day of kindergarten, higher-income kids are already as much as two years ahead in language development. A gap in opportunity at an early age solidifies into an achievement chasm; a low-income fourth-grader who’s already behind in reading is 13 times more likely to drop out of high school; kids who drop out of high school are more likely to be incarcerated.

“You can make an honest argument that keeping kids in school is grassroots crime prevention,” John Wetzel, the secretary of the Pennsylvania department of corrections, says in the film. “True criminal justice reform is investing in early childhood education.”

Part of that investment, the film argues, is valuing the profession of early childhood educators as rigorous and important, rather than as glorified babysitters. Early childhood educators such as Rachel Giannini, a pre-school teacher from Chicago, Illinois featured in the film, make less per year on average than parking attendants or dog walkers. Giannini, bubbly and preternaturally at ease in the classroom, works a second job as a bartender and was still forced to leave teaching; one of her colleagues breaks down in an interview explaining how she can’t achieve financial stability or move out of her parents’ house due to the low salary. “It’s like you don’t matter,” she says. The barely passable pay (according to Glassdoor, the average for pre-school teachers in Chicago is less than $29,000) “devalues the profession, it devalues the time that these kids have here.”

The systemically low compensation for teachers is “criminal,” said Truglio. “You’re giving these teachers your most precious resource – your child – and we as a country are giving our children to these teachers and we don’t treat these teachers with respect and pay that they could actually have a career in education.”

The often prohibitive bar of low compensation is one symptom of a larger cultural misunderstanding about the importance of upfront investment in early childhood education, Truglio and several experts in the film argue. “People think, ‘Oh, they’re just kids, they’re just going to play, why do we need to put all this money in?’” Truglio said. As pointed out repeatedly by activists in the weeks of protests against police brutality and anti-black racism since George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last month, America invests heavily in punishment – policing, courts, incarceration. From community to city to state, it spends comparatively little on education, especially in the first five years.

As the film points out, it’s not because said investment is an unpopular idea – 89% of Americans, from both political parties, support making early childhood education more affordable. Actually pressuring lawmakers to shift funding, to move in the direction of prioritizing the earliest years, to lessen family burdens instead of compound them, remains an open question. As a country, “we have to decide: are we going to make this investment?” Truglio said.

“It takes leadership and policy makers to put this first and decide that they should make this investment,” she added, “because it’s an investment in our future.”

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