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50th Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Dr. Geoffrey Nagle


Conventional wisdom is often unkind to the education system in the United States – it holds that schools aren’t doing a good job in general, or that a quality K-12 education is harder to come by for students of color or those from low-income households. In total, it results in a system that leaves students unprepared for a competitive global economy.

Dr. Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Erikson Institute, agrees that more needs to be done to ensure students are prepared for college and beyond once they finish high school. But he doesn’t place the blame on K-12 education – he believes many students are at a disadvantage before they even set foot in kindergarten.

“The story we’ve heard about our schools may not be the real story,” he said in an interview with WBEZ radio in Chicago. “Schools are doing a lot better than we think they are doing, but they are struggling to overcome the deficits students have when coming into the schools. School failure isn’t really about the schools -- it’s about how we prepare students for school. And we also have to understand the adversity children face and how that impacts them.”

Nagle encourages parents, educators and government to place more focus on the 0-3 years of a child’s life – what he calls “the first 1,100 days.” During this time, many children receive no formal education at all, and often go all the way to age 5 without entering a classroom.

When an educational system is designed to advance a student’s academic growth by one grade level per year, as is the case in the United States, students who enter that system already behind will face significant difficulty and frustration – the effects of which go well beyond a report card.

“Early experience is the smoking gun for both academic achievement and health,” Nagle told Chicago’s City Club in 2018.

The fact that students from affluent backgrounds emerge from the K-12 system better prepared isn’t proof that their schools are better, Nagle argues, but rather that they received stronger support in and out of the home in early childhood.

“Generally speaking, school systems are educating poor and non-poor students equally across the country,” Nagle told the City Club. “But the system we have is not designed to close the achievement gap. Early childhood education is only a piece of the puzzle. We also need to think more broadly about policies that shape early experiences. Without those, we won’t move the needle.”

Improving the early childhood experience animates the mission and work of the Erikson Institute, which Nagle leads. The institute prepares child development, education, and social work leaders to improve the lives of young children and their families. It amplifies this work through academic programs, applied research, knowledge creation and distribution, direct service, and field-wide advocacy.

This extends to being an advocate for children when mistreatment makes the headlines – Nagle and the institute were vocal in opposition to the government’s family separation policy in 2018, for example.

“Children’s well-being should be a universal, non-partisan issue, but too often we forget to keep their needs at the center of our deliberations and priorities,” Nagle said at the time. “Doing what is best for young children is consistent with our values as a nation and humans.”

Born in New York City and raised in Westport, Conn., Nagle earned his bachelor of arts degree in political science from Duke University and both a master of social work and master of public health from Tulane University. His doctorate, also from Tulane, is in mental health policy research, an interdisciplinary degree that combined his interests in social work and public health.

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