Eduardo Porter, the author of the above-linked article, tells us that the debate over how to improve the nation’s mediocre education system is missing the most important part: infants and toddlers. He cites research by James Heckman, one of the nation’s top economists studying human development, that tells us clearly:
–Children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than those whose mothers had dropped out of high school, proof of the advantage for young children of living in rich, stimulating environments.
–The difference in cognitive performance for children from poor versus rich families was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3.
–The gap in math abilities between rich and poor children was not much different at age 12 than it was at age 6.
–Investment in the early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem.
According to Heckman, “The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten. School neither increases nor reduces it.” This statement and the research behind it is shocking, considering how much money the government puts toward public education and early learning programs, such as Head Start.
Porter goes on to tell us what happens when making an investment in children in their early years doesn’t happen. According to research by Julia Isaacs, an expert in child policy at the Urban Institute of Washington, found that “more than half of poor 5-year-olds don’t have the math, reading or behavioral skills needed to profitably start kindergarten.” Although making higher education accessible to all has been given much attention for decades, Porter makes it clear that the investment should be made at the beginning, not the end, of a child’s life. Erick Hanushek, an expert on the economics of education at Stanford, put it more directly: “We are subsidizing the wrong people and the wrong way.”
The money doesn’t add up either, since Heckman estimates that “raising high school graduation rates of the most disadvantaged children to 64 percent from 41 percent would cost 35 to 50 percent more if the assistance arrived in their teens rather than before they turned 6.
Researchers are not the only ones aware of what is wrong with our nation’s education. The Obama administration understands the importance of early investments in children. “Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Mr. Obama said at a speech in Decatur, Ga., in February. Unfortunately, we’re all waiting for a shift in the spending and priorities.
“Early education is an essential piece if we are going to have a better education system,” Barbara Bowman, an expert on early childhood education in Chicago who has advised the Education Department. “We’re inching in that direction.” To me, inching means that every day we don’t address the issue quickly, efficiently and wisely, poor children will continue to be unprepared for and struggle in school as well as carry on the legacy of being disadvantaged in our country. Porter sums it up well when he says “Education is always portrayed in the American narrative as the great leveler. But it can’t do its job if it leaves so many behind so early.”