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California has the world’s fifth-largest economy. It just decided to invest $2.9 billion in early-childhood education. That includes a free “extra” year of education before kindergarten, for children at age four. This essay describes why the entire US must do the same—and more!—to maintain our competitiveness and global leadership.
The science is absolutely clear. The years of early childhood—especially those before conventional education now begins—are the most important for children’s mental and social development. During those years, children’s brains are growing and developing rapidly. Their neurons are exploding in both numbers and their connections to other neurons, which are the means by which our brains record our memories and intelligence.
Starve the brain of “input” during those years, and you have a stunted mind all the way to and through adulthood. Provide it with high-quality education, designed by people trained to nurture young minds, and you create competence, reasoning power, social skills, and even the occasional genius. The gain in mind power per unit of exposure to learning is greater during these early years than at any time during a person’s life.
Today we have extraordinary science to verify and reinforce these points. We have CAT and PET scanners that can peer into living, growing brains. But we don’t really need them. The Jesuits have long recognized the importance of early education, saying, “Give me the child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.” Most sources attribute this saying to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who died in 1556.
If you are a keen observer, you can see the process in operation yourself. Watch a bright, healthy child of one to two years old. See where and how he or she shifts and focuses attention. Try to direct and focus that attention and see what happens. All this occurs before the child has acquired language, even before the first words are spoken.
That’s why affluent parents often start reading to their kids even before the kids have acquired language. That’s why some parents play classical music for kids still in the womb—an effort that research suggests has a stimulative effect.
One of the most important factors in preschoolers’ mental development is the number of different words they hear in the course of each day. Better-educated households offer their kids a richer vocabulary, producing better language skills. Professional early-childhood education can help close this educational missile gap.
And therein lies the rub. Today’s kindergarten takes kids at 5 years old. So if the Jesuits are right—and modern science says they are!—public education now neglects five out of the most important seven years of a child’s development.
That’s 71%, nearly three-quarters. It’s also the most important three-quarters, because the explosive pace of postpartum brain growth soon has to slow down for the rest of the body to catch up. Children who enjoy a rich learning environment—being read to at night and having heard Mozart in the womb—thrive. Those that don’t suffer lifetime deficiencies in comparison.
A friend of mine, a retired elementary school teacher, tells a tragic story. Once she had charge of several four-year-old children from a poor background, for just a short time. There was nothing wrong with them. They seemed to be healthy and active, and they spoke normally. But they couldn’t name common colors like red, green and orange. When given a children’s book to hold and examine, they didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t open it or turn the pages: they didn’t know how to start. It seemed they had never seen a book.
My friend concluded that their household environments had been learning deserts. How different they might have been if immersed for two or three years in a home where their parents read to them every night! How might they have grown in a professionally run, high-quality learning environment for just a few hours per day!
That is what free, universal, professional, early-childhood education would do. It would give all children the rich learning environment that those four children lacked, regardless of their families’ origins, backgrounds and income. Nothing we could do as a society would be as cost-effective in redressing the rampant inequality that is now tearing our society apart.
But that’s just the beginning of early-childhood education’s benefits. Households mired in poverty often have other problems, too. Children there may suffer from absent or abusive parents, inadequate nutrition, social chaos, or just simple neglect. With five or six hours of daily education, they could experience a different world and come to know it. The attraction of that different world would give them a taste for learning that would last them all their lives. And meals offered in early-childhood schools could make up for critical gaps in children’s nutrition, which can affect not only learning and intelligence, but growth and general health, too.
Early-childhood education’s benefits don’t stop with the children themselves. They also benefit the parents or other custodial adults. For the kids involved—ages two to five or even one to five—early-childhood education would substitute for day care. It would allow adult custodians to go to work full time and earn a decent living, without worrying about the kids.
Some day-care centers provide little beyond custodial care, i.e., baby-sitting services and some toys to play with. Proper institutions of early-childhood education would provide every child with a carefully planned, beautifully rich educational environment based on all the recent discoveries about children’s psychology and mental development. With adjustments for age, it would mark the difference between prison (a holding facility) and university.
Universal early-childhood education would also elevate workers in what is now known as “day care.” It would convert today’s day-care centers into sophisticated educational institutions at the cutting edge of child-development science.
Those who now change diapers and wipe rear ends would do so under the supervision of people with degrees in child development and/or special training. They would learn while they work and have good pathways to career advancement. The whole process of converting from “day care” to early-childhood education would improve the training, day-to-day work, career development, prestige and pay of what are now low-paid day-care workers.
For centuries, if not eons, educating children has been left to overburdened women as an onus of gender. Apparently no one but the Jesuits recognized as early how important it is in giving us bright, reasonable, knowledgeable citizens, not to mention the occasional genius.
Now, with the aid of modern science, we know how mind-bogglingly important educating our youngest children is, beginning as early as possible after birth, and maybe even before. We also know how important it is to liberate half of our potential workforce—women—from work that many are not good at, many don’t want to do, and many are too ambitious in other careers to do well, regardless of talent.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all is inequality. If the affluent don’t have the time to play Mozart to their fetuses and read each night to their kids, they can afford to buy machines or hire people that can. Poor parents can’t do either. So their children suffer from lifetime stunted mental development through no fault of their own.
This vicious cycle entrenches multi-generational poverty. At the same time, our society (outside of affluent homes) belittles early-childhood development, often relegating it (especially in poor neighborhoods) to people who are not properly trained, not properly respected, and (considering the importance of their work) grossly underpaid.
All these things need to change. The society that changes them first and best will have the same sort of advantage over others that the US once enjoyed by virtue of its early introduction of universal, free public education in general.
Once in the vanguard in that regard, the US is now late to the party. So playing catch-up may be the most important infrastructure of all. In the long run, what could possibly be more important than properly nurturing the mental and social development of all our children to their full potential?
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