Public policy for K-12 education is not a zero-sum game

For someone who works with the science of early child development, calls to focus on early learning and development as a way to improve outcomes in high school and beyond have become a familiar chorus. Therefore, I read the article “ School at Age 3. No More 12 th Grade ,” written by former U.S. Undersecretary of Education Linus D. Wright in The Chronicle for Higher Education , with great interest. I applauded – and even cheered out loud! – the notion of offering early childhood education programs earlier as a way to create more skilled adults and, ultimately, a more prosperous society. We all benefit when supporting the full spectrum of development for children pays off in improved school achievement, economic success, and better lifelong health. But public policy for early childhood and K-12 education is not a zero sum game, and science tells us that offering one should not be at the expense of the other.

It is well known that, by the time children enter kindergarten, there is already an imposing gap between those who come from high- and low-income families, and this gap only widens as children get older, manifesting in disparities in rates of disease, health care provision, reliance on public assistance, rates of incarceration, earnings, and other outcomes that are costly to society. The silver policy lining in this cloud of statistics is that, by training public dollars on early childhood – certainly ages three and four, but, more importantly, the full spectrum of birth to age five – public policies can support positive outcomes for life.

But the real story here is that development doesn’t stop at age five; the brain is still developing in the late teen and young adult years. This is particularly significant with respect to the set of skills referred to as executive function or the brain’s “air traffic control system,” Becca Stoltz which consists of working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. In fact, though we see the sharpest gains in these skills in the early years of life, they actually continue to develop into the early to mid-twenties… during high school and on into college. People with well-developed executive function skills experience benefits in school achievement, positive behaviors, good health, and successful work performance. In short, there is a lot happening in the teenage brain that has an impact on the adults they are becoming.

With this knowledge in hand, it seems that eliminating 12 th grade is taking the conversation one step too far…and maybe in the wrong direction. Developmentally, twelfth-grade students are learning how to manage multiple commitments, plan for the future, navigate complex social situations, and integrate these skills with the content they are getting in school. Science tells us that early is better…but it also tells us that it’s never too late. (Say it with me: “Early is better, but it’s never too late.”) Each year of education matters, and senior year of high school is a huge opportunity to provide academic, social, and behavioral skill development to all students before they go off into the world, not just to higher education, but also to the military, to the workforce, and, for some, to young parenthood. For those who don’t learn how to prioritize or keep a to-do list or have the self-regulation to know when it is appropriate to act on their impulses, it makes each and every one of the paths they may pursue that much more difficult and potentially risky for themselves and those around them. This has implications for the person, for the children that they will ultimately raise, and for society, in general.

Now what does this mean for policy and practice? It means that the very early years – as brain architecture is developing and new brain circuits are being built on those already established – are the optimal time for a child to be in an environment where adults are modeling executive function skills, allowing the child to test his or her own abilities with these skills and to be shielded from the chaos, adversity, and toxic stress that can derail the brain from healthy development. It means that we need to create opportunities for children and adolescents to practice and develop their executive function skills because, if we only focus our attention on early childhood, we miss a critical period of skill development in the teen years. It means we should think about how we design meaningful, effective learning experiences in 12 th grade. And it means that we need to get creative about connecting the policy conversation around the birth to five years with that of the K-12 system.

It also means that, instead of short-changing one part of development to serve another, we should be thinking about how to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the whole system and how to reinvest long-term savings from supporting early childhood development back into a system that prepares all students for life after school. I admired the article’s systematic, resource-based approach to thinking about reallocating already-existing public funds in an effort to do better, particularly during this time of budget cuts and financial short-falls. But perhaps it’s not a matter of reallocating funds within state departments of education. Maybe we should be looking at other departments that come in contact with children in the birth to five years and try to create a cross-system approach to integrating public funds more efficiently. Or perhaps we need to look to states that have allowed TANF work requirements, which are largely met by relying on executive function skills, to be fulfilled by parents staying home with their young children, providing time for them to model these very skills that are so important throughout life.

So – yes! – let’s be creative in our policy and practice, especially with how we allocate state funds. I encourage everyone – from those who work in early childhood classrooms on a day-to-day basis to those who make policy that affects all children – to think about how we can orient the dialogue to focus on the early years. But let’s be clear: development is an on-going process. Instead of eliminating a year of high school, let’s think about each phase of development as an opportunity to improve outcomes. Imagine how much might happen during senior year that could build another solid level in the brain’s architecture and prepare young people to be contributing members of the society in which we all live.


Rebecca Stoltz, MPH, directs the Science of Health and Development Initiative at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. She previously designed and wrote online behavioral health curricula for high school and college students and parents.