Last week I had the good fortune and honor to be in the audience when the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, addressed a roomful of early education professionals. It was refreshing to hear a cabinet-level person talk about the federal government’s commitment to early education.
Early education in the United States has been a stepchild program for many decades. Many people view it as babysitting. This has kept salaries for preschool teachers and daycare workers low, and it has kept adequate funding both at the state and federal level to a minimum. This has been a very misguided strategy and it has helped lead to the decline of our educational system in general, and an erosion of our competitiveness with the rest of the world. If we don’t teach our kids when they are little, they never learn how to learn, they perform poorer in high school, they don’t go to college, and all too often they end up in prison.
Brain research has shown that an infant forms about 700 neural connections a second. In a ten-hour day, that makes over 25 million new connections. So if you drop your baby off at daycare at 7:00 in the morning and pick him up at 5:00 in the afternoon, you are carrying 25 million more connections home than you dropped off.
Have those connections been formed by cognitive stimulation that a professional educator can provide? Or did your baby sit in some room all day, staring at the compelling distractions and commercials on a television screen?
Research also has found that educational level and income of parents are mirrored by their children’s performance in school. Children growing up in poorer households tend to do more poorly in school. Children of richer parents do better.
This is a powerful reason why our nation should be investing heavily in its human infrastructure. The children born today will be our CEOs, our politicians, and our teacher in 40 years. Will they be competitive with those in China? It costs some $8,000 a year to pay for a child in preschool. It costs society $50,000 a year to support a single prisoner. What is the better investment?
I often hear the conservative argument that we should not subsidize early education because it just encourages deadbeat people to “breed” more at the expense of the rest of us. To this I ask the question: Is it the child’s fault that the parent was a deadbeat, or a single teen mother, or a drug addict? Of course not. The child was simply not lucky enough to be born as the child of a rich or educated person.
If you count the 25% of the brightest and most successful children in China, the number is larger than all the children we have. If we want to be competitive with China in this century, we cannot “waste” a single child, a single brain, a single day of 25 million more neural connections.
Early education is not just babysitting. It’s the foundation of the health of our nation, the basis upon which our economy will rest 20 years hence, and the prerequisite for the tax base that will support us when we are old. Early education is really important.