U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. focused on the importance of both quality and access to preschool learning in the nation during the 12th annual Walter N. Ridley lecture at the University of Virginia’s Alumni Hall on Wednesday.
The lecture, sponsored by the Curry School of Education and the Ridley Scholarship Fund, is named after the first African-American student to graduate from UVa. Ridley received his doctorate in education from the Curry School in 1953.
“Looking at the faces in this room, it is clear that UVa honors Dr. Ridley’s legacy by ensuring a diverse student body, drawing students from all over the country,” said King, who became education secretary in March. “And, of course, we have to acknowledge that here at UVa, as at many of our higher-education institutions, we still have work to do to ensure that our campuses are diverse, welcoming and inclusive places where every student can feel at home and never feels threatened because of their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their religion or political beliefs.”
During his speech, King talked about expanding access to high-quality early learning.
“Great early-childhood teachers are essential to creating the opportunities and the environment for this powerful learning to occur,” he said, “especially for our economically disadvantaged students who far too often enter school behind in key areas of academic and socio-emotional development.”
King also mentioned how a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, creates opportunities to expand early education in schools across the nation.
“Access to low-quality programs is no access at all,” he said. “It’s a false promise and it’s a missed opportunity.”
King mentioned several times how important early education can be for the development of younger students. He later touched on how early education was important in his own life, having lost his mother when he was 8 years old and his father when he was 12.
King said those moments and connections he had with teachers in nurturing school communities made a difference in his life. He said he can still remember school lessons, activities and plays.
“Those experiences literally saved my life,” he said. “I would not be standing here today but for the phenomenal New York City Public School teachers that sent me on the right direction.”
Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School, said after the lecture that he thought King laid out a “very ambitious agenda around the importance of early learning.”
“I think he made a really important point that if we’re going to realize the promise of early education, we can’t just focus on opening up more slots for kids and providing only access,” he said, “but that we’ve got to make sure that the slots and the places that we have for kids are providing the kind of benefits to their learning and social development that they really need.”
Steve Koleszar, an Albemarle County School Board member, also attended the lecture.
“I think my takeaway from it is the critical piece, the quality,” he said. “Access to preschool isn’t going to help that much if it’s not high-quality preschool.”