Kunin: Preschool is where upward mobility begins

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Gov. Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat and the first woman to serve as the governor of the state of Vermont. This piece first appeared on the Huffington Post blog on Feb. 14, 2013.

President Obama got it right when he proposed quality preschool for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. He is using the bully pulpit the right way by urging states to make this life-changing investment. If we are serious about providing upward mobility and building a skilled workforce, preschool is the place to begin.

Long-term studies comparing children who experienced quality early education and those who didn’t who were interviewed 40 years later showed significant differences. The preschool group had fewer divorces, lower incarceration rates, and higher employment rates. Investment in remedial education, later in life, is more expensive and less successful, than in later years, according to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago.

Why? We now know more about brain development and the critical importance of the years 0-5. That’s the most important time in a child’s life. It’s the best time to learn and form habits, including “non-cognitive skills.” That means learning the ability to complete a task, to communicate, to focus, and to develop social skills. These skills last a lifetime.

Studies of Head Start over the years have sometimes shown that there is “fadeout” when children enter first grade. In some case, scores in math, reading and writing are not dramatically different from other children. There appears to be no fadeout of important social skills which are critical to learning and to performing on the job.

Governors, including Vermont’s Peter Shumlin, are leading the way because they know that even in a period of tight budgeting, early education including quality child care, preschool and all-day kindergarten pay measurable dividends.

Heckman studied high school students who didn’t graduate from high school but received their GEDs later. He found that high school graduates and GED graduates had similar test scores. He concluded that the difference between these two groups was not academic. It was the lack of “noncognitive” learning skills necessary to succeed.

Investment in early education is not a liberal or conservative idea. Neither should it be decided along party lines. Two Red States are leading the way: Oklahoma and Georgia. Why? Because they recognize that every dollar invested in early education provides a seven dollar return, according to economist Heckman.

Governors, including Vermont’s Peter Shumlin, are leading the way because they know that even in a period of tight budgeting, early education including quality child care, preschool and all-day kindergarten pay measurable dividends. The Vermont House Education Committee, which invited me to testify, is likely to soon report out a bill.

The president’s program is comprehensive. Among the qualifications states will have to:

• Establish state level standards for early learning
• Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms
• Pay teachers comparably to k-12 staff
• Effectively evaluate and review programs

The United States is no longer first in the world in upward mobility. We can reverse that trend by giving our young children an equal start in life as they begin their journey to fulfill the American Dream.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Privacy policy

Recent Stories

  • Jamal Kheiry

    Gov. Kunin’s assessment makes no mention of the most important factor in whether a child is going to succeed, either in life or in school: parents. If one ignores the fact that parents are by FAR the biggest factor in any child’s life – whether for good or for ill – then it’s easy to conclude that a set of policies and programs designed by lawmakers and lobbyists will solve our problems.

  • Tony Redington

    Yes, Governor Kunin identifies the most important next step in Vermont education and with the support of Governor Shumlin we can attain universal pre-K with the promised help from President Obama and add another milestone for providing Vermont youngsters with the best chance to succeed. Thanks too to the early child health system created under the leadership of Howard Dean starting at birth with support immediately for young mothers and families to assure a healthy start in life.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Universal Pre-K is based on the false assumption that there is always someone better to love, teach, and care for a child than the parent.