Take a minute to think about some of the largest problems in the United States today. Unemployment, poverty, crime rate and the likes come to mind. When looked at straight on, it may seem impossible to change. Every election there seems to be a new politician with claims he can dissipate each and every problem by the end of his or her term. Unfortunately, these problems are still present and only worsening as time goes on. However, what if a change in something completely unrelated to any of the previously mentioned issues could solve them in response? I believe that hidden behind all the red tape and public agendas the answer is an increased emphasis on early education.
I recently started taking a service course for St. Thomas which requires students to complete 40 hours of volunteering at a place of their choosing. I'm completing this at an organization called Reading Partners. They are a non-profit that gives individual tutoring to elementary school students that are anywhere from a half to two and a half years behind reading grade level. This has been a very eye-opening experience and made me realize just how poor the education system, or more specifically, early education truly is. I've been working with a variety of students, all of whom are from the inner city, and it's blatantly obvious they have not been given the type of instruction they need up to this point. There are third graders who can't spell their own name, second graders who are reading at a Kindergarten level and the list goes on and on. The blame doesn't fall on the student's hands as they have simply been thrown into a broken system. It is sad to see children go on for so long before an adult at the school takes the initiative, although possibly too late, to get these children extra help.
Without a national emphasis on early education, there will be a byproduct of other failures and raising issues in our country. This time is essential for children to learn and grow as it quite literally creates the building blocks for future success. It could be said that this time frame is a critical period. In developmental psychology, this is defined as a time where the nervous system is extremely sensitive to any environmental stimuli. For instance, if a child had a condition that prohibited them from seeing for the first four years of their life, they would not be able to see normally again. In relation to education, this means if a child does not gain the necessary skills from an early age, it will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Preschool education is when children are most capable of developing cognitive skills from reading and writing to executive functioning which is anything relating to impulse control and problem solving. Imagine if a child fails to learn impulse control and how that could correlate to a detrimental future. If no one ever teaches them these essential skills, it immediately sets them down a path where success is unlikely.
Take this for example. The HighScope Perry Preschool Study took 123 kids who were in poverty between the ages of three and four and split them up into two separate groups. Half of which attended preschool and the other half did not. Later in life when the subjects turned 40 years-old statistics were taken regarding how they were in life. The results were alarming. The group who did not attend preschool had a significant amount more who had been incarcerated, unemployed and ended up being high school drop outs. It seems crazy that so many problems fall back on the simple fact of children not getting the early education that they need.
This is not the first time that a seemingly irrelevant problem can result in the solution for many others. In 1987, the company Alcoa, or Aluminum Company of America, hired a new CEO by the name of Paul O'Neil. Alcoa was a giant in the industry but had been experiencing several poor years strung together. The change in leadership seemed like a good thing until O'Neil revealed his plan to investors. He did not focus on the obvious like profits or taxes but what was puzzling to investors was the focus on worker safety. Everyone was shocked that this new CEO of an aluminum powerhouse company was solely talking about safety. How on earth could that turn things around? However, it did just that. By the time he retired in 2000, Alcoa's annual net income was five times greater than when he first started. O'Neil said this was simply because you can't order change, you have to change the culture of the company one thing at a time and he did so by allowing the individual employees to create a habit of excellence.
This story connects to directly to education. People have been looking at potential solutions to things like unemployment and crime rate for years but to figure out how to solve all of these, one must look at the root of the issue. If children don't get the education they need from an early age and form the social skills necessary to succeed, they will just continue to fall farther and farther behind. Nothing positive can stem from this.
There is also a direct return on investment of early education. The Head Start Program was founded by Lyndon B. Johnson during his presidency with the goal to give children in poverty the opportunity to get schooling. James Heckman who is a Nobel prize winning economist said for every dollar invested into this program, there is on average, seven to nine dollars on return. This is due to children being less likely to need public benefits such as welfare among other things if they get proper education from an early age.
The results speak for themselves. If change is made within the education system other large problems will fall and true success will be apparent. Young children deserve individualized instruction and the chance to start out on the right path. It's not just a cliché when one says investing in children is an investment in everyone's future.