Education research has made it very clear that if kids aren't at grade level in reading and math by third grade, it's very hard for them to catch up...ever. They are more likely to drop out of high school, become juvenile delinquents, and start smoking at an early age. The research is equally as clear, although perhaps less well known, that the social and cognitive progress a child makes before the age of five is equally important. This may sound melodramatic, but it's true: A good start for babies and toddlers could spell the difference between a healthy, contributing member of society and someone who requires a great deal of energy and resources to keep healthy and out of trouble.
No one disagrees with this, as evidenced by a National Journal event last week that featured an array of politicians and educators who pondered how to up the ante on early childhood education. The problem isn't the debate. It's that policymakers have not yet made early childhood education a priority, according to University of Minnesota researcher Art Rolnick. Rolnick has hardcore economic evidence that there are high rates of return on investing on education in the early years, particularly for disadvantaged families.
It's not like there is a lack of advocates in the area. The First Five Years Fund, which sponsored the National Journal event, is making a considerable effort to focus the Obama and Romney campaigns on early childhood development heading into the election. But Obama campaign adviser Jon Schnur made the observation that many educators have noticed--most politicians are operating off of "shorter term" needs and benefits than can be gleaned from investing in babies. This does not appear to be a top-tier campaign issue.
Should political candidates focus on early learning in their campaigns? How can the issue play out on the state or local levels? How can early childhood education receive more public investment in a tight budget era? How can the private sector get involved in early education? Are there pitfalls to avoid when attempting to make young children "kindergarten ready?" Do we need a No Child Left Behind for birth through age five?