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Pat Earley

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"Teach Your Children Well"

Posted: 07/21/10 06:43 PM ET

I was listening to the radio the other day - tuned in to one of those "Oldies but Goodies" stations - when they started playing the song, "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There are several verses in the song that go, "Teach your children well" . . . and it continues, "Teach your children what you believe in. Make a world that we can live in." As I continued on my way to work, the lyrics of this song kept repeating in my mind and I couldn't help but think back to a recent business summit that I had attended in Boise on early leaning and the importance of early education to our future as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

An economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, Rob Grunewald, spoke about the gains young children can make in their cognitive and educational performance when they participate in quality early childhood development programs. He gave many examples including a study that was conducted on children from low-income families who attended a pre-school program in Michigan. The study showed that these children were more likely to graduate from high school, were less likely to commit crime and were more likely to earn more income in the workforce as adults than a controlled group of children who did not attend pre-school programs.

In 2002, UNICEF compared the public education system in 24 nations around the world. At that time the United States public education system ranked 18th and the graduation rate ranked 19th out of the 24 nations examined. In 2007, 16% of high school students between the ages of 16 and 24 years of age (nearly 6.2 million people) were high school dropouts.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam known as the 'nation's report card,' found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in the U.S. in 2005 were "significantly worse" than those of students who completed the exam in 1992. Further results indicated that 39% of 12th graders lacked even basic high school math skills.

Considering the current state of our economy and the fact that almost 90% of all education funding comes from state and local sources, it becomes evident that our nation is a fiscal and educational quagmire. How we choose to invest our limited resources will impact not only our long-term economic prosperity and fiscal stability but also our educational foundation for future generations to come.

The United States currently faces serious education and budgetary problems. There is a growing body of work that shows that high-quality early childhood development and education is a powerful way to help address these problems and lay a foundation for human and economic growth. Research shows that children reach their potential for learning when they have the experiences needed to lay foundational skills in their early years; that the majority of children who start elementary school who are unable to read, write or perform basic mathematical skills will find it difficult to progress through high school; and that the home environment plays an important role in how children develop these skills.

Investment in high-quality pre-school and home visitation programs in terms of subsequent educational attainment and in lower rates of social problems, such as crime, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency, is wise investment in tomorrow's future.

While research has led to an increased awareness of the potential benefits of early childhood education, currently there are only 40 states that fund some type of pre-school program and only Georgia, Oklahoma and the District of Columbia have established universal pre-kindergarten programs. Although most policy makers agree on the importance of early childhood education, budgetary constraints, as well as an inability to view these programs as fiscally sound investment s in tomorrow's future workforce, continue to stand in the way of redirecting funds toward the early years.

We must re-prioritize and put our children first. As a nation, we need the foresight and resolve to declare early childhood investment a top priority. Programs such as the Chicago Child-Parent Center project, the Educare program in Milwaukee, and the Twiga Foundation's BLOCKFest™ program are excellent examples of early education programs that work. Programs that integrate the family into the solution not only lead to better educated and productive children, but also enrich the family environment and its well-being.

Children who participate in early childhood programs are more likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to go to college, are less likely to become teenage mothers and fathers, are less likely to be on welfare, and are less likely to smoke or use drugs. It is clear that "early environments play a large role in shaping later outcomes" (Heckman, James and Masterov, Dimitriy (Jan. 5-7, 2007; "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children, "lecture, funded from a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Partnership for America's Economic Success). So far our country does not have a long-term strategy for providing early childhood education. A commitment to improving the quality of early education benefits everyone and may be the most cost-effective economic investment for our future.