Where's the Beef? Obama's Valentine to Early Education

We are starting to think that all good things start in Chicago. First, President Obama makes statements about the importance of preschool for our nation's children in his State of the Union address. Did you hear the collective jaw drop from people who study children for a living (like us) and educators? A president who understands the importance of early education for America's children? Are we dreaming?

Second, James Heckman, University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner, appears on NPR two days later. "If you want 21-year-olds to have jobs, the best time to train them is in the first few years of life." Actually, Heckman has been saying this for a long time, having done cost-benefit analyses of preschool attendance for disadvantaged kids. It's all about front-loading: either you pay for preschool early or you pay for prisons later. No joke. Hard to imagine that an early experience like preschool can inoculate a child against getting arrested in his twenties. And children who attended preschool earn 50 percent more salary than their unlucky peers who didn't get to go.

Why is that? Because, as Heckman says, kids pick up the "soft skills" in preschool that allow them to work with others. "Valuable skills like how to resolve conflicts, how to share, how to negotiate, and how to talk things out." Try getting a job without these skills and see where you end up.

Some states -- like Oklahoma and Georgia -- are setting the standard for preschool education. But the cold truth is that only a fraction of America's children are in preschool at the age of 4. According to the National Center for Public Education only 26.7 percent of children are in preschool when millions more could use it. And the great irony is, as we have pointed out in prior blogs such as "Are Babies Like Eggplants?," preschool at 4 is even too late! This is because babies -- yes, even 6-month-olds -- are already soaking up knowledge like little sponges. They need to be talked with (yes, conversations with pukers) and read to (colorful picture books, not trashy novels) and taken places (the supermarket and park will do quite nicely) to learn the language and concepts they need to make their way in the world.

In a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, aptly entitled, "How to Make a Young Child Smarter," scholars at New York University reviewed 16 studies with a total of 7,370 participants in which poor children were enrolled in preschool. Children lucky enough to be in these programs -- and not in the randomly selected control groups -- gained roughly 7 IQ points. But why does this matter? Because IQ predicts how children do in school and what kinds of jobs they can hold after.

We sink and swim together! Children in poverty can grow up healthy and smart and prepared to make a contribution to society.

We hope President Obama's Valentine's Day to preschool education happens everyday! We've had the beef for a long time as evidence for the value of preschool education has mounted up. Now, as a nation, we need to find the right recipe too.