I was privileged to attend the Washington Post’s summit on families and children earlier this month. What did I learn? That education remains the key ingredient for success for all American children, especially those living in poverty. While experts and politicians continue to debate the role of government in helping families, children, and communities, all agree that white houseeducation continues to be a path to opportunity.

A common thread of the day seemed to be agreement on the need for “universal” or universally available PreK for all 4-year olds. “We have to get out of the catch-up business,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He called high quality early childhood education “the best investment we can make in children, families, and our nation.” What administration officials seem to be focusing on first is the need to increase access to PreK for children living in families with incomes that are 200% of the poverty level or below. “If we close opportunity gaps, achievement gaps will go away,” said Duncan.

Duncan also noted that the impact of the federal budget sequester has already been felt in schools on military bases and Native American reservations where school leaders had to plan for budget cuts starting at the beginning of this school year. More schools are likely to feel the pinch this Fall. “Federal money goes to the most vulnerable populations – poor children and those with special needs,” he said.

What is working in our schools according to Duncan?

  • Schools that have effective leaders – “Great principals matter greatly.”
  • Schools that meet all the social, emotional, and physical needs of students – “We need wrap-around services” as well as “after-school activities”
  • Schools with “college-going cultures”

Duncan talked about the need for early identification of children likely to fall through the cracks or drop out.  He said we should ask nonprofits and churches to “step up and support those kids.” We should further look at absences in middle school as an early indicator. If all else fails, we still need to provide paths to re-entry such as alternative schools and incentives to schools to bring students who have dropped out back to school.

Another “huge play to increase equity” according to Duncan is a speedy move from print to online learning and the use of technology. He spoke about the promise of flipped classrooms and about the importance of pairing great teachers with great technology.

What do you think? Will PreK, school partnerships with community organizations, or increased use of technology improve your students’ chances for success? How should the federal government or outside agencies help you help your most economically vulnerable students?