In his heart-felt State of the Union address, delivered on Lincoln's birthday anniversary, President Obama issued a call "to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America". Then on Valentine's Day, he outlined the specifics of this educational reform which, among other positive things, calls for universal full-day kindergarden and a massive expansion of quality preschool programs for all American children. This is unprecedented. No other U.S. President has ever taken the initiative to direct national attention on the vital importance of early childhood education and directly push for new public policy to address its current woeful state.
is certainly refreshing and potentially revolutionary for Uncle Sam to appear
as Papa Obama, a father in the White House determined to give birth to a new
child-centered public policy. As a popular educational slogan critically
expresses it, a mind is a terrible thing to waste; and by its longstanding
neglect of quality early childhood education for all, America has been wasting
or withering millions of minds in the making and leaving countless children
No child is born with a mind, the reservoir of symbols, and unless nurtured in a rich symbol environment no mind in the making develops its full potential. Deprivation of symbolic interaction is to the mind what oxygen deprivation is to the brain -- simply devastating. That deprivation and devastation have been the rule not the exception for far too many American children for far too long. This must end, and if Papa Obama's presidential initiative does not fall victim to political infanticide, it will end and a new era for America will begin.
Make no mistake about the magnitude of this unprecedented presidential initiative. It is not only about raising the quality of education and enculturation for young children. It is about raising the quality of life for us all and creating a future for America better than all her pasts.
After all, what are the roots of productivity and creativity, the sources of our national well-being? Ultimately they are found in the developing minds of young children, the poorest age group in the richest country on earth. And therein lies the crisis and the challenge.
Material poverty and symbol poverty are two sides of the same coin, one that we do not invest in children. Studies have shown that by age 3 there is a significant correlation between class and vocabulary with affluent children mastering over twice as many words as their impoverished counterparts. Poor children are comparatively more likely to have learning disabilities and other health problems; receive lower grades in school; score lower on proficiency tests; finish high school less; and end up in prison more. Maintaining an army of some 13 million impoverished American children is conservatively estimated to annually cost the U.S. economy about $500 billion in lost productivity. The presidential initiative on early childhood education has the potential to reverse and overcome these dismal facts.
Study after study consistently demonstrates the positive impact good early childhood education has on quality of life and quantity of productivity in adulthood. For every dollar invested in quality early childhood education there is an estimated return of $4-$11 in benefits to our society. Nevertheless, we foolishly neglect to meaningfully invest in our children during their foundational years. At the root of material and symbolic childhood poverty lies an abysmal poverty of public policy on early childhood education. The presidential initiative is designed to abolish that public policy poverty in America. It certainly is, as Papa Obama, also said, "something we should be able to do", a statement that was greeted with partial applause in the halls of Congress and the homes of America. Now is the time to turn that conditional applause into concrete action for our children, our country and our future.
Werner Lange, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Sociology
University of Akron