Published in the Delaware County Daily Times August 10, 2018
By Joseph Batory
Nations around the world seem to have a much better understanding than the USA 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 receptive and transmit and store masses of information instantaneously. 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.
Most countries internationally have recognized the value of Pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) education and have begun offering a version of universal public preschool for its children. But not the USA. Many developed nations around the world now have more than 90% enrollment in pre-K programs, far surpassing the US which has just over 60% enrollment for its 4-year-olds.
The USA should not continue to ignore this disturbing reality. In that context, it is interesting to note that China plans to have pre-K for every 4-year-old and most 3-year-olds by 2020.
Opportunities for quality pre-K remain highly unequal across our country, especially for poor children. In wealthy areas of America, parents have figured this out. On the east side of Manhattan, these moms and dads have their 3- and 4-year-olds on waiting lists to gain admission to elite pre-school education costing five figures annually. In contrast, there are still millions of poverty level and lower-income parents across our country for whom pre-school education of their children is not achievable.
A recent report from CNN affirms that most of our competitor countries are: Investing more in young children along with those teaching them and basically guaranteeing that their future workers will out compete the USA. Building walls and raising tariffs won’t give us an edge on the competition; our best weapon is a solid preschool foundation. Quality early learning programs not only give children a strong start in life, they make good economic sense and build a robust workforce. There are vert high rates of return on public investments in early childhood education as a result of improvements in not only education but also health, economic productivity and reduced crime.
Many research studies have noted the positive impacts of expanding preschool education opportunities for children in our nation. This is certainly not some panacea or “magic wand.” But…some of the longitudinal studies—those that have followed children from preschool graduation through adulthood—point to benefits that include a lower likelihood of incarceration, less need for public assistance, longer-lasting marriages, and a lower risk of heart disease. And nearly every study has concluded that children who have attended preschool are more academically and socially prepared for kindergarten than they would have been otherwise.
Numerous economists are on record noting that early childhood education is a sound public investment because early learning programs for children under five years of age can also improve America’s competitiveness in a global economy. The gains come from a more educated workforce that earns higher wages and contributes productively to the economy.
The United States has long had a backwards approach to problem-solving. That’s because our country tends to spend only 15 percent of its available resources on prevention and 85 percent on trying to fix the problem after it occurs. That is the wrong formula economically! It makes much more sense to spend 85 percent on prevention and then eventually save the much larger amounts of money that would no longer needed to try to remedy a mass of problems.
A prime example has been the USA’s approach to prisons. Instead of trying to find ways to reduce incarceration (prevention) —- and many researchers have indicated that pre-school education is one way — our government has just kept concentrating on the much costlier alternative of building more prisons to contain more prisoners. If the researchers are correct about the impacts of high quality early childhood education, for the long term, we could be greatly reducing prison costs and developing many thousands of more productive citizens through universal high-quality prekindergarten programs now.
America is falling far behind in educating its youngest children. Our elected leaders need to awaken from their political slumber and do more to increase Pre-K educational opportunities thereby improving not only our workforce and economy but our society as well.
Joseph Batory is the former superintendent of schools in Upper Darby. He is the author of three books and has been widely published with articles about politics and education.