09/26/2011 08:58 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2011

Education Nation Changes the Conversation

NBC News' Education Nation campaign launched this week with teachers, business pioneers, a former president and other leaders gathered in New York City to engage in a dialogue about education in America today. The event spans all of NBC's news programming and also convenes a three-day Summit on education issues.

Education Nation is not only an effort to amplify the conversation about education in America, it's also about changing the conversation.

We were honored to participate in Education Nation Monday -- on The Today Show and on a panel at the Summit -- talking about an issue that is too often left out of the debate: the power of early childhood education.

Simply put, early childhood education is essential to teaching kids how to learn. It's about developing key cognitive, social and emotional skills that determine a child's success in elementary school and beyond. It's about the simple acts of learning things like how to sit still and listen, recognize the alphabet and the importance of sharing with other kids and even adults.

What may surprise some people is that early childhood education comes down to everything Americans are anxious about today. Indeed, now, more than ever, Americans are deeply concerned about the future, not just next year and the year after, but 10, 20 and 30 years down the road.

From breaking the cycle of poverty that is gripping Americans -- particularly kids -- at historic levels to igniting innovation that can drive our global economic leadership, the scientific and economic data on early childhood education is clear cut.

- A meaningful investment in high-quality early childhood education -- such as enrolling the 40 percent of kids under five who don't attend any sort of preschool program -- would add $2 trillion to the gross domestic product within a generation.

- Early childhood education is proven to reduce crime, domestic violence and high school drop-out rates.

- And, in rural America, where the poverty crisis has gripped families and communities for generations, it is one of the keys to breaking that cycle once and for all. The War on Poverty, led by Mark's father Sargent Shriver, included significant investments in early childhood education, reducing poverty rates among kids from 25 percent in the mid-1960s to 15 percent 10 years later. Tragically, today, they've increased back to nearly 25 percent.

Members of Congress and the president are currently engaged in a deep and delicate battle about how to slice up the federal budget. There is no question that investing in early childhood education is a slice of the pie. The difference is that that early childhood education can create an even bigger pie of growth, investment and security for generations to come.