Keeping Faith with Our Children: Why Early-Childhood Education Is the Best Investment We Can Make

Article excerpt

EDUCATION FOR ALL IS A DEfining value of our country, and living up to it takes more than lip service. It takes dedication, hard work, and financial commitment. It means working in partnerships to create the best federal, state, and local policies to increase educational opportunities for all. It also means starting early.

States across the nation have begun to recognize the importance of significant investments in early childhood education. More states are following the lead of Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma by enacting initiatives that call for universal preschool education. Massachusetts has recently laid the foundation for early education for every child in the state; West Virginia passed a law pledging preschool education for all 4-year-olds in a decade; and Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment mandating the same, sooner. But to fully realize this defining national value, it will take sustained and inspired federal leadership--of the kind that is lacking in Washington today.

Nevertheless, the movement is accelerating in many states because of advances in understanding of how very young children develop, and of how profoundly their earliest years affect the rest of their lives. An impressive National Academy of Sciences study led by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Brandeis University, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, makes the case: If we fail to meet children's developmental needs starting at birth, we shortchange our children and our society as well. That's the impetus for the newly launched National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, chaired by Shonkoff.

We need to invest in early education if we are serious about improving student achievement, minimizing learning disabilities and emotional disorders, and ensuring that children arrive ready to learn on the first day of school, graduate from high school, attend college, and excel in the workforce.

Young children's potential rests heavily on the quality of the environment in which they learn, whether at home, in day care, or in a nursery school classroom. When the environment is inadequate, gaps in achievement quickly widen, becoming increasingly difficult to overcome. In no other area is an ounce of prevention worth so many pounds of cure.

Today in America, far too many of our nearly 20 million children under 5 don't receive the nurturing they need to learn and grow. Sixty-two percent spend time each day in the care of someone other than their parents--some in preschool, others in child-care settings that are too often substandard.

Years ago, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and North Carolina's Abecedarian Project began to identify solutions. …