The Race Car Problem

Posted on by Elisabeth Tobia

I’ve been reading a book of essays by teacher and poet Taylor Mali, called What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. He’s got a lot to say about education and the people involved in it–which is to say, parents and teachers.

Mr. Mali’s teaching experience was primarily with middle school students, but his observations convey what the founders of EC3 understood back in the early 1980s: “… the most important work to be done in education is with the youngest possible kids, the ones in primary school and pre-primary.” He goes on to say, “From what I understand, the evidence is overwhelming: when children have access to quality pre-primary education, the advantage they get is so great that their peers who were not as fortunate will never catch up. Never. Even if I had been the greatest teacher in the history of the world, by the time a student reached my sixth-grade class, the extent to which he or she could progress intellectually had been almost entirely determined nearly ten years earlier!”

Mali drives the point home with a math problem:

Imagine there’s a car competing in a 100-mile road race. Halfway through the race, the car makes a pit stop and the crew chief determines that its average speed so far is 50 mph. How much faster must the car go in the second half of the race in order to end up with an average speed of 100 mph for the entire race? I loved putting this question on math quizzes because the answer is surprising and enlightening. It’s a trick question of sorts because the answer is that there’s nothing the race car can do to double its average speed. It has already taken too much time in completing the first half of the race to hope of doubling its average in the second half. Even if it went 200 mph in the second half (the most tempting answer), it would complete the course in another 15 minutes. But the average speed would still only come out to be 80 mph. It’s just too late. The car would have to instantly beam itself to the finish line 50 miles away at the speed of light in order to average 100 mph. Too much mediocrity has been allowed to pass for acceptable progress to make certain levels of excellence possible. The best the car can do is to revise its expectations for the outcome of this race and promise to do better in the next one.

I sometimes wonder if all of EC3’s parents understand, really understand, the benefit they are giving their children by enrolling them in a high-quality early learning center. I certainly didn’t see it that way when I enrolled Helen here in 2002; I merely looked upon EC3 as a good “daycare” that would keep her safe and happy while I went to work. Sure, she would learn a few things, perhaps get a jump-start on reading or whatnot–but I put much more value (at that time) on what school system we’d enroll her in and where she would go to college; to me, those were going to be the real determinants of her success. Everything that mattered in her life was still in her future, or so I thought.

Sitting, now, on the other side of the desk in the EC3 office (and on the far side of Helen’s elementary school experience), I understand completely that her “success” already happened, and that it is breeding more opportunity for her with each new endeavor. I get it. It makes such obvious sense to me, now, that I’m surprised financial aid isn’t as abundant for preschool as it is for college, because the return on investment would be astounding.

My hope for 2013 is that we–parents–find ways to value early learning at least as much as we value primary and secondary education. Even before policy initiatives and funding methods are weighed and debated, we need to get the importance of early learning. We–parents–need to be more thrilled our children attend preschool than we would be to hear they’d been accepted to Harvard. Quoting Francis Keppel, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1962 to 1965, “Education is too important to be left solely to educators.”

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