As a country we have looked to education as a road to equal opportunity - as a path to gaining knowledge, developing skills and learning behaviors that prepare children to do well as students, workers and citizens throughout their life. Of course, family and community have the greatest influence on how children grow up. But education is the way we, as a nation, attempt to level the playing field for all children and families. Education is how we traditionally try to make good on the great American promise of equal opportunity.
Here's the problem: Too many children arrive at Kindergarten already behind. Some are 18 months behind, two years behind, or more. What's worse, far too many children will keep falling further behind - and never catch up.
I believe every child is born with more or less the same potential. Every child - given the right opportunities from their earliest weeks, months and years - can be successful in school and life.
But every child is not born with the same opportunities. Too often, those disparities get locked in well before the little girl or little boy even steps into a Kindergarten classroom.
By the time a child enters Kindergarten, she or he already has been learning for five or six years. In fact, by the time a child enters a preschool classroom, she or he already has been learning for two or three years.
Sound science and everyday experience show that children are born learning. However, our country's public policies, programs and practices typically don't take this knowledge seriously. Instead, we wait to respond to a child's earliest learning until the first day of school. Is that really too late? Yes. Because the achievement gap we struggle to narrow in elementary school and too often fail to close in high school is actually an "opportunity gap" rooted in those very early years.
In fact, you can measure the achievement gap as early as when a child is 18 months old - about the time a child starts talking.
So please allow me to share an "investment tip" from Omaha: If you're looking for the biggest return on your investment in education, invest in high-quality learning during the first five years of life - before kids enter school.
We're doing it in Nebraska.
And, together, we have the opportunity to do it across America.
There is growing momentum - perhaps even the start of a national movement - to make sure all children arrive at school ready and eager to learn. More and more people "get it." They see investing in the earliest weeks, months and years of a family's life as the best way to generate the greatest return on their educational investments - especially for children growing up in families facing the toughest odds.
About 700,000 babies are born each year into poverty in America. We can do far better than this. Innovative private-public partnerships that begin in infancy - like the center-based work of Educare, the home-visiting work of Save the Children, the federal Early Head Start program, and Nebraska's Sixpence Early Learning Fund - are showing promising results in changing the life trajectories of vulnerable young children and their families. (Full disclosure: Our foundation invests in all four.)
President Obama has elevated early education to a national priority. If rhetoric leads to action, this would mark a sea change in the way America treats vulnerable young children and their families. The vision the President has broadly outlined starts early with babies and toddlers, serves families in center-based care as well as through home visiting, boosts quality, and pushes the boundaries on the old ways of doing business.
This is an unprecedented opportunity for each of us to seize. A recent poll, commissioned by the First Five Years Fund and conducted by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, finds U.S. voters rank investments in early learning as the second most important priority for the federal government, behind increasing jobs and economic growth, ahead of tax cuts.
I firmly believe the United States is the greatest country in the world, but we lag behind other industrialized nations, ranking 28th out of 38 developed countries on early education enrollment among 4-year-olds, let alone what we fail to do for infants, toddlers, three-year-olds and their families. That puts us behind Germany, Australia, Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia.
Here in the dawn of the 21st Century, this worrisome global competitiveness gap is directly related to the achievement gap we're struggling with in each local community throughout the United States. And that is all directly related to the opportunity gap that exits the moment a child is born.
Together, we can close the gap. All it will take is for us to fully embrace the idea that children are born learning.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Save the Children, as part of the latter's drive for universal early education, which is the focus of their gala on October 1 in New York. For more information about Save the Children, click here.