Unleashing Creativity To Improve Early Childhood Learning

Posted by Sig Behrens
General Manager, U.S. Education, Microsoft

I witnessed something personally yesterday that was truly inspiring. It reminded me of how exciting a time it is for education reform here in the United States.

We are facing massive education budgets cuts in most states and critical programs like pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are usually among the first to be cut. This affects at-risk kids the most and only perpetuates the cycle of these children not being adequately prepared for learning. And this cycle, should it continue, will continue to drive our graduation rates down which will only make matters worse for our nation in the years to come and we will continue to slide economically.

That's why I want to commend the U.S. Department of Education on the announcement of the new Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge, which I was privileged to attend in person with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. With this historic announcement, states will be able to submit applications toward the $500 million fund to develop high-quality, creative early learning systems to ensure low income and disadvantaged children are poised to come to school and start kindergarten ready to succeed.

The education industry has realized the earlier the focus on engagement, the better chance we have of students keeping kids in school. There is so much research showing that children who go to preschool have better language, literacy and math skills. As a national board member for Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), I see first-hand the challenges at-risk kids face. I think this new grant has great potential to even the playing field, to provide all children, regardless of economic background, the opportunity to go to preschool, and to move the needle on kindergarten readiness. This effort can lead to increased graduation rates which will strengthen our nation’s skills, and help make our country economically stronger and more globally competitive.

Everyone should do their part, and there are two places where I believe our industry can help look at the problem holistically. Revolutionary changes in technology have now made it possible to facilitate interoperability in ways that could not have been imagined even a few years ago. Through Microsoft Consulting Services and our collaboration with partners, we are doing some incredible work to bridge education and health and human services work and data together. We’ve completed projects in Washington and Pennsylvania to connect various separated government systems, which helped create a technology framework that makes sense of all their disparate data so officials are able to draw conclusions and move from a reactive, crisis-driven approach to a more proactive, preventive service delivery.

And while technology is no cure-all, there is growing evidence that gaming, in particular, inspires kids and gets them more engaged with learning. There is no better place to reach kids than where they are spending most of their time. By creating immersive, interactive and personalized experiences, children can not only improve their cognitive skills development, but they can get instant feedback and rewards for successfully completing tasks and lessons. It leads to better engagement and better focus. We are already seeing how Xbox and Kinect can transform the learning environment around the world. I can’t think of a better way to give kids a head start and for an easy way for educators to engage and inspire children at all ages, but especially the very young.

We at Microsoft, and our industry partners, are very eager to engage on this opportunity because we agree with Secretary Sebelius when she said so clearly, “the only way America can out-compete the rest of the world is if we out-educate the rest of the world … And the only way we can do that is if every child gets a healthy start and a rich early learning experience.” 

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