Science and politics shared the stage Wednesday night as two nationally known researchers discussed how a baby’s brain is primed for learning from the moment of birth, and politicians underscored the need for a greater state commitment to early-childhood education.
“The Case for Early Learning,” a panel discussion at Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond, drew hundreds of parents, policymakers and education advocates interested in furthering state and local commitment to preschool education.
University of Washington brain scientists Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff, co-directors of the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) described how the timing and quality of play, stimulation and interactions with adults can help mold the developing mind, for better and for worse.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray explained why one of the most important initiatives of his administration is the passage of a pre-K pilot program to bring early-childhood education to low-income children.
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“In a city that’s so committed to issues of equality,” said Murray, “I don’t know anything else that is more important for us to do.”
If Seattle voters approve a preschool program — there are two competing measures on the November ballot — Murray believes other neighboring communities, and perhaps eventually the state Legislature, will be compelled to act as well, he said.
One of the measures before Seattle voters would fund a four-year pilot program providing high-quality pre-K education to 2,000 4-year-olds. The other calls for more taxpayer support for preschool as well as care for younger children. It would also take wages for preschool and child-care workers to a $15-an-hour minimum sooner than would be the case under a city minimum-wage measure passed earlier this year.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle expanding preschool education: finding the money to pay for it.
State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, voiced a need to change the state’s revenue system. The state Supreme Court last month found the Legislature in contempt for repeatedly failing to meet the requirements of the 2012 McCleary decision, which found the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.
Education funding is expected to dominate the upcoming legislative session.
“I don’t think we can pit early learning against K-12, against higher education,” Kagi said, to applause from the audience. “And we cannot fund McCleary by cutting social services.”
Kuhl, the brain researcher, outlined a series of principles about the way children learn, based on decades of research she and I-LABS co-director Meltzoff have done using high-tech scans of baby brains and cleverly designed experiments to show how babies and young children interact with their world.
“Brains need to be built,” Kuhl said. Although babies “come ready to learn in an amazing way,” they need appropriate input to build good development.
Kuhl said the timing of learning is especially important. For example, between birth and 7 years of age, children’s brains are primed to learn a second language, yet that ability starts to drop off in early adolescence.
Babies are statisticians, taking in data such as the sounds of languages and making determinations about which sounds are most important to learning their native tongue, she said.
But babies are also social, needing interaction with a caregiver for the input to be meaningful. For example, infants learn foreign-language phonemes and words rapidly when they’re presented by a live speaker. They learn nothing when the same information is presented on a TV or through an audio recording.
The panelists included Tulsa County Commissioner Ron Peters, a former Oklahoma state legislator who introduced a bill to establish early-childhood education in that state. Peters, explaining how much resistance he encountered at first, said that when he first introduced the bill, many legislators accused him of introducing “a socialist plot to take over the minds of our kids.”
It took him three years to get backing from his fellow legislators to win approval of the bill, which funded preschool through a public-private partnership.
Kagi said she believes the Washington Legislature is ready to give some form of support to preschool education.
“I think there is tremendous momentum going into this session,” she said.
Wednesday night’s event was sponsored by Microsoft, the University of Washington, Sabey, ParentMap and The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project.
It was the first program in a new event series, LiveWire, sponsored by The Seattle Times and meant to feature meaningful discussions about vital issues affecting the region and its people.