Dr. Douglas Kristensen
Chancellor, University of Nebraska at Kearney
What makes a child likely to thrive in Nebraska's classrooms? Naturally, language and numeracy skills will play a major part in a child's preparedness to succeed in school. But educators also agree that the ability to follow complex directions, focus on tasks, work cooperatively, control emotions and impulses and function in a structured environment are just as critical to academic achievement.
Studies of model early childhood programs indicate that very young children—particularly those most at risk of failing in school—realize significant benefits in all of these skill domains as a result of consistent, coordinated, high-quality learning experiences both before and after they begin kindergarten. In turn, these gains correspond to stronger performance on academic assessments, higher graduation rates and higher levels of post-secondary education. What happens in children's earliest years directly informs the trajectory they will follow as they move through and beyond the K-12 system.
Nebraska's public schools serve more than 300,000 students at an average cost of about $12,000 per pupil per academic year. In general, this investment in our children's education pays dividends as Nebraska ranks among the top states in the nation for high school completion. And yet, state expenditures on special education currently exceed $200 million and continue to climb as more children enter kindergarten unprepared to learn and thrive in Nebraska’s classrooms. Factoring in costs associated with behavioral health services, grade retention and school dropout, the net losses to individuals and the fiscal burden on society increase drastically.
Investments in high-quality early childhood learning and developmental opportunities can’t overcome all of the risk factors for children who are likely to face serious challenges in school and life. But a growing body of evidence shows that consistent, stimulating and supportive early experiences result in persistent academic gains and can offset the high cost of trying to address the achievement gap in elementary school and beyond.