03/07/2013 02:24 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

We Owe Our Kids Universal Preschool

Since the State of the Union, President Obama has repeatedly pledged to work with states to make high quality pre-school available to all children. Every time he does I immediately think of Tre Thompson, a four-year old in Oklahoma.

Tre's mom, Christina Thompson, cannot believe how much her son already learned this year in his full-day, free pre-school class in Oklahoma City. "Since he's been in school his vocabulary has increased tremendously," Thompson says. "The other day he came home and said, 'You know what, mom? You are being ridiculous.'" Thompson chuckles. "And then he asked, 'Do you know what 'ridiculous means, mom?'" Tre knows the entire alphabet, his numbers to 100, and he's starting to read. And letters and numbers aside, Thompson is most struck by how fast Tre is absorbing vocabulary and language.

Of course, not all pre-school is created equal. High quality pre-schools have well-trained, well-educated teachers in the classroom (much like Tre Thompson's teacher Mrs. Wallace, who uses play-based learning to teach both academics and social skills and can rattle off a battery of data on how well her students are progressing towards their year-end goals). Texas can also offer a model for educator development: its Texas School Ready! campaign has proven to increase the quality of participating pre-schools by providing early childhood teachers with coaching, professional development, research-based curriculum, and progress monitoring. States and districts should also integrate pre-school into the K-12 system, as Oklahoma does, so that children transition seamlessly into kindergarten.

Curriculum is also crucial. High quality pre-schools like the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter in Washington, D.C. painstakingly plan their curriculum to ensure everything they teach, from letters down to the classroom behavior, corresponds to what will help children succeed in elementary school and beyond.

Oklahoma is one of the leading states in providing students like Tre free, full-day pre-school. And the results are already paying off: according to a 2005 study, Oklahoma kids that went through pre-school showed vocabulary gains 28 percent higher than those of children without pre-school, and math gains 44 percent higher than non-pre-school kids. And we know that high-quality pre-school doesn't just mean higher scores in elementary school. A now famous study in Ypsilanti, Michigan put low-income African-American children through two years of high-quality pre-school and at the same time recruited a control group from the same demographic who received no pre-school. The researchers checked back in when the children turned 40 and the results were stunning. Without any other interventions, the pre-school group was more likely to have graduated high school and less likely to have committed a violent crime. They also earned more money and were more likely to be employed.

But despite the powerful evidence of the life-changing and cost-saving potential of high-quality early childhood education only 59 percent of our poorest four-year-olds are in pre-kindergarten, compared to 90 percent of our country's wealthiest kids. This hurts those kids' futures and it hurts the U.S. I think we can all agree that our students need to be more, not less, prepared for life and for the workforce.

We know pre-school works, so let's stop talking and start building a system where all children have access to excellent early childhood education. As any well-educated four year old could tell us, not doing so would be ridiculous.

This Op-Ed originally appeared in USA Today.