Winning the World Cup

06/30/2010 04:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the next few months, a crucial bill will be coming before Congress - the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). When the House and Senate consider this legislation, they ought to take a hint from one of the most popular topics of the summer: World Cup Soccer.

In the World Cup, people of many nations come together for a fierce competition. To field the best team, all the competitor nations know that they need to train their athletes for many years, starting as early as the first moments a child can recognize a soccer ball. No shortcuts. No late starts. The truth most World Cup nations know is: If we start them young, we can compete and win.

Long after the 2010 games have finished and the fans have left South Africa, another global competition will be raging on - just as it has for decades. That's the global economic competition, and the stakes are clearly quite a bit higher. How can the U.S. win? Learn from the best World Cup competitors: If we start them young, we can compete and win.

The key to America's economic future is educating kids as early in their lives as we can. Long before our children enter kindergarten at age five or six, 85% of their core brain function will have been developed - and it will either fully develop or it will be permanently impaired. Because at-risk kids aren't getting proper nutrition, health care and focused adult interaction, they are the ones whose cognitive skills are being impeded. By the time most children from low-income families reach kindergarten, their achievement levels are an average of 60 percent behind those of their peers from middle and higher income backgrounds. So when the already-overburdened K-12 school system receives its low income 5- and 6-year olds, most of those kids are starting out behind and may never catch up. As a scientific matter, once a child's brain function is stunted, no amount of education - K-12 or otherwise - can fully rejuvenate it.

Can these kids be rescued? And can it be done with available resources? The statistics don't lie. The facts are known. The scientific research has been verified and is irrefutable: High quality early childhood programs can fundamentally change the negative trajectory of most at-risk children. For example, at Educare Centers around the nation, evaluation data consistently shows that Educare children demonstrate improved vocabulary skills, improved literacy and better school preparation for standardized tests commonly used to measure school readiness. While their peers without early childhood programs score well below the average, test scores for at-risk children who have benefited from the Educare model match national averages for all children.

But today a meager 5% of public investments in children occur during early childhood. Can we afford to spend more? Definitely. Nobel Prize economist James Heckman has shown that every dollar invested in early childhood education for at-risk children yields economic gains of 10% every year including savings on government programs like remedial education in later years.

That's why early childhood education must be a part of the No Child Left Behind reauthorization, which historically has been geared to the K-12 years. It's absolutely critical for that legislation to target specific funding to early learning opportunities, improve coordination between elementary schools and early learning providers, and boost training for early childhood educators.

During the past few months, early education advocates have been making their case before Congress. But there's no advocate like a concerned citizen, and no time like right now. Let's send the word to our Senators and Representatives: make early childhood education a major part of No Child Left Behind. If we start them young, we can compete and win.