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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

Pre-School Is Where Upward Mobility Begins

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President Obama got it right when he proposed quality pre-school for low and moderate income four-year olds. He is using the bully pulpit the right way by urging states to make this life changing investment. If we are serious about providing upward mobility and building a skilled workforce, pre-school is the place to begin.

Long-term studies comparing children who experienced quality early education and those who did not who were interviewed 40 years later showed significant differences. The pre-school group had fewer divorces, lower incarceration rates, and higher employment rates. Investment in remedial education, later in life, is more expensive and less successful, than in later years, according to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago.

Why? We now know more about brain development and the critical importance of the years 0-5. That's the most important time in a child's life. It's the best time to learn and form habits, including "non-cognitive skills." That means learning the ability to complete a task, to communicate, to focus, and to develop social skills. These skills last a lifetime.

Studies of Head Start over the years have sometimes shown that there is "fadeout" when children enter first grade.In some case, scores in math, reading and writing are not dramatically different from other children. There appears to be no fadeout of important social skills which are critical to learning and to performing on the job.

Heckman studied high school students who didn't graduate from high school but received their GED's later. He found that high school graduates and GED graduates had similar test scores. He concluded that the difference between these two groups was not academic. It was the lack of "non cognitive" learning skills necessary to succeed.

Investment in early education is not a liberal or conservative idea. Nor should it be decided along party lines. Two red states are leading the way: Oklahoma and Georgia. Why? Because they recognize that every dollar invested in early education, provides a seven dollar return, according to economist Heckman.

Governors are leading the way because they know that even in a period of tight budgeting; early education including quality childcare, pre-school and all day kindergarten pay measurable dividends.

The president's program is comprehensive. Among the qualifications states will have to:
-- Establish state level standards for early learning
-- Qualify teachers for all preschool classrooms
-- Pay teachers comparably to k-12 staff
-- Effectively evaluate and review programs

The United States is no longer first in the world in upward mobility. We can reverse that trend by giving our young children an equal start in life as they begin their journey to fulfill the American Dream.