Published in the Delaware County (PA) Daily Times
February 24, 2012
By JOSEPH P. BATORY Times Guest Columnist
What Is The Best Way To Improve Education in America?
Amidst the endless debate over improving education in the United States, one simple reality about “where the action really is” for educational improvement is not getting enough attention. Prekindergarten education matters and it can make a huge difference for the better. The simple fact of the matter is that the most important learning for all human beings occurs between birth and 5 years of age. Children’s brains in those early years are remarkably fertile —- neural connections are transmitting and storing masses of information every second. It is during these early years when our social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive (intellectual) competencies are developed. More than 85 percent of the foundation for effective communication, problem solving and critical thinking is developed by age 5. What parents do in these years is critically important.
The conservative view of public education in the USA argues that all children have equal potential to learn. If only this was true. As just one example, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups. What they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in the number of spoken words. Professional parents on average spoke more than 2,000 words per hour to their children whereas poverty/low income parents on average spoke only about 600 words per hour to their children. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words between rich and poor children by the time the youngsters reached the age of 4.
The need for some pre-kindergarten experiences for all children could not be more obvious. Yet, millions of American children never receive the advantages of a quality pre-school experience at ages 3 and 4, i.e., those educational, health and social supports that build the basis for their future success.
Tragically, the United States lags far behind most of our international competitor nations in providing pre-school and childhood care services. And this is a huge shortcoming that keeps our nation at a disadvantage in many ways. The bottom line is that high-quality early childhood programs can have a significant impact on later success in life and on American society. Among industrialized countries, the United States invests the least in early childhood care and education services — 0.5 percent of GDP compared to anywhere between 2 percent and 6 percent in European countries. The United States child-care policies in recent years have improved but we still remain far behind other industrialized countries in supporting our citizenry. If children start school ready to learn because of their pre-school experiences, they are much more likely to be able to read by third grade. The child who reads by grade three is much more likely to be a high school graduate. And high school graduates are much more likely to go on to further education or at the very least enter the job market as a taxpaying citizen. A recent national survey of income levels noted that an average high school dropout earns $17,299 annually while the average annual salary for a high school graduate is $26,933. Over a lifetime, the net gain to the high school graduate is $630,000. And this greatly affects the U.S. economy. It is ironic that in wealthy areas of America like the east side of Manhattan, parents have their 3- and 4-year-olds on waiting lists to gain admission to elite pre-school education costing five figures annually. Yet, in spite of our many Headstart programs across the nation, there are still millions of poverty level and lower-income parents for whom pre-school education of their children is not happening. The devastating outcome of the lack of pre-school education has been made clear in a number of research studies that correlate children who did not have quality pre-school experiences with being more likely to commit violent crimes in later years. The United States has long had a backwards approach to problem-solving. That’s because our country tends to spend 15 percent of its available resources on prevention and 85 percent of the cure. It would make much more sense economically to spend 85 percent on prevention and then eventually save huge amounts of money that would no longer needed to try to remedy the problem.
A prime example has been the USA’s approach to prisons. Instead of trying to find ways to reduce incarceration —- and many researchers have indicated that pre-school education is one way —- we have just kept concentrating of the much more costly alternative of building more prisons to contain more prisoners. Since the 1980s, our national prison population has increased from 500,000 to more than two million, now at a staggering cost of more than $70 billion each year. If the researchers are even somewhat correct about the impacts of high quality early childhood education, for the long term, we could be reducing prison costs and developing thousands more productive citizens through high quality prekindergarten programs now. At the national and state levels, we need more political will and determination to increase and enhance pre-school education and care. We also need to create more programs to better educate parents about the fact that everything they do with children at home in those very early years is affecting what those children will eventually become. More intense focus and action plans regarding the critically important prekindergarten years can only improve society for all of us and create a more productive and educated citizenry for the future.
Joseph P. Batory is the only Greater Philadelphia area recipient ever to have received the “Lifetime Distinguished Service Award” from the American Association of School Administrators