Advice To The Next President: K-12 Education And Early Childhood Development


As the federal government's role in K-12 education has grown, so has the debate over whether, when and how it should intervene in what has traditionally been a state and local governmental responsibility.

(White House)
(White House)

And, at what age should the government begin taking an interest in the development of its youngest citizens?

Paul Toner, Jim Stergios and Tassy Warren bring their varying perspectives to bear on one of the issues President Barack Obama has placed at the center of his second term.

Paul Toner is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). The MTA has 110,000 members in about 400 local affiliates.

To improve K-12 education, Pres. Obama should continue working as closely with teachers and their unions as he has over the past four years. I don't just say that because I'm a union president. I also say it because working with teachers and their unions is critical to improving America's schools.

Some argue that unions are the problem, but the facts show otherwise. Teacher unions actually improve student performance when compared with non-unionized teachers. According to Education Week, all five states with the top performing students allow collective bargaining for teachers.

Working with teachers and their unions is critical to improving America's schools.

Here in the Bay State, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) has fought for adequate funding for public education, worked to expand learning time beyond the traditional school day, and helped develop and support the Commonwealth's Race to the Top application. Our members support an increased focus on improving teacher quality and student achievement.

Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Our teachers are in the classroom every day and have invaluable experience when it comes to knowing what works and what doesn't. MTA also recognizes we don't have all the answers. We know we must collaborate with others, and work as equal partners in the task of improving education.

In our latest effort, MTA is partnering with the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, Massachusetts' school committees and superintendents, and area universities and think tanks, to build the Massachusetts Education Partnership. Our mission is "to improve student achievement and success through collaborative labor‐management relations in school districts across the Commonwealth." It's because of such partnerships that Massachusetts has some of the best public schools in the United States. By building on such models, Pres. Obama can continue to improve education for students across the country.


Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based non-partisan think tank known for its focus on education issues.

In 2009, Pres. Obama effectively used the "bully pulpit" to expand charter schools, changes that were adopted by state legislatures around the country. During the next three years, the administration opted for a "top down" approach, with Race to the Top pushing state compliance with federally defined state reforms. These included not yet field tested Common Core standards, not yet complete national tests and bureaucratic teacher evaluation systems. In a second Obama administration, these efforts are likely to get bogged down in the complexities of implementation; importantly for Massachusetts, they undo key reforms that have driven our remarkable success.

The federal government should not mandate a "one size fits all" education model.

Instead, I'd advise the president to do four things. First, revert to using the bully pulpit, this time to improve the effectiveness of charter schools. In Massachusetts, the state insists on strong accountability for charter schools. That's not true in enough states.

Second, the Department of Education (DOE) should reward results — not compliance with federal mandates. It should create a Race to the Top that rewards states that improve student achievement — not those adopting bureaucratic reforms with no proven connection to student achievement.

Third, the DOE should use its $3 billion of Title II funds to get professional development right. That means focusing on training master teachers with 10 or more years’ experience to become educational leaders within their schools, who can mentor less-experienced and less-effective colleagues. It means ensuring young teachers have mastery of the subjects they teach. And it means making funds available to states that want to supplement the pay of teachers in math and science, subjects in which there are shortages of knowledgeable teachers.

The federal government can encourage effective state policies to improve teaching and learning, but it should not seek compliance by mandating a "one size fits all" education model.

Tassy Warren is project director of the Frontiers of Innovation Initiative at Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.

The early years matter because, in the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second. Neural connections are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences, especially “serve and return” interaction with adults. These are the connections that build brain architecture — the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend. Yet, we as a society invest in these early formative years a tiny fraction of what we invest from kindergarten through high school — let alone what we spend for college and advanced degrees.

We should invest early — during the time of greatest cognitive development.

Recent advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics, the behavioral and social sciences, and hard economic analysis of human capital development all point to one conclusion: Healthy development in the early years means children will be more successful in school, and as adults they will be more productive contributors to the economy, more responsible participants in their communities, and they will lead healthier, longer lives. All of that means that when they are adults, the communities they live in will be stronger, the economy they participate in will be healthier, and they will be better parents of the next generation of children.

The policy implications for the president are clear:

We should invest early — during the time of greatest cognitive development.

We should invest in high quality programs — those that provide a return on investment of $4 to 9 for every dollar spent (program participants benefit from increased earnings while the public sees returns in the form of reduced special education, welfare, and crime costs, and increased tax revenues from participants later in life).

And finally, we should invest in targeted services for those at highest risk: Young children who experience repeated and significant adversity early in life have a 90 to 100 percent chance of developmental delays, as well as increased health risks (e.g., they are three times more likely to develop heart disease as adults).


  • WATCH video of these lectures — plus a Q & A with Paul Toner, Jim Stergios and Tassy Warren — here.

This program aired on December 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live