02/15/2012 01:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2012

Early Childhood Education Is Where It Starts

In President Obama's State of the Union address he made a good case for young people to stay in school. He said,

We also know that when students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight I am proposing that every state -- every state -- requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

He received a round of applause. Everybody approved because it makes common sense. Average annual income for a high school dropout is $17,299 compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate. Worse yet, many high school dropouts can't find any job because they lack the skills.

If it's such a good idea to stay in school until the age of 18 or graduation, why have only 21 states passed this law? Because by the time a student reaches 16, it is often too late.

If we are to be serious about reducing the dropout rate in this country, we have to begin much earlier. Many low-income children fall behind their classmates as early as kindergarten. If we want to increase the number of high school graduates we have to focus on the years one through five. That's when critical brain development takes place that often determines whether the young child will grow into a successful, productive adult.

It's not just about test scores. In addition to doing well in math and reading, long-term studies demonstrate that children learn non-cognitive skills early -- like the ability to complete a task, focus, and work cooperatively. Long-term studies of 40-year-old adults who attended excellent pre-schools indicate that they are more likely to complete high school, and have lower unemployment, and lower incarceration rates than a control group who did not attend these pre-schools.

Early investment in children is our best investment, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who believes that money spent on quality childcare and early education has the highest rate of return.

Vermont has an opportunity to lead the way. We can be pleased that we have the highest graduation rate, but we cannot be complacent. Every Vermonter should have a high school diploma, but to succeed every Vermont child should have access to quality childcare and early education.