early education
A slide from an early education presentation given October in Oklahoma City illustrates the return on investment for various levels of child development. (Provided)

Across the nation, the post-election transition period has proven to be just as angry as our bitter election, which is likely to be followed by possibly the most divisive presidency in modern America. Today’s anxiety recalls that of the 1970s, when Watergate, the collapse of the Nixon administration, the fall of Saigon and the 1973 energy crisis launched the deindustrialization of America (which was one of the legacy tragedies that recently culminated in Trumpism).

Although it occurred in October, the Potts Family Foundation and Oklahoma Early Childhood Coalition’s conference offered a message even more important after the election. Keynote speaker Nancy Fishman, deputy director of the public-policy organization ReadyNation, provided at least two more reasons why Americans should stop ignoring a 1970s scientific discovery.

Early education a smart investment, transcends partisanship

First, high-quality early education is the smartest investment Oklahoma can make. Fishman cited data from various sources in her presentation that highlight how returns on investment in high-quality early childhood range from $9 to $16 for every dollar invested. As cognitive science shows, these benefits accrue because 90 percent of brain growth occurs by age 5. Learning gaps appear as early as 9 months of age and, consequently, disadvantaged children can come to school 18 months behind.

For 20 years, public education has been engaged in a bitter edu-political civil war over the ways to address these disadvantages after children arrive in public schools. We have largely ignored studies showing that, if children start school ready to learn, they are twice as likely to read at grade level by age 8. We’ve been equally oblivious to research showing that children who read at grade level by age 8 are four times more likely to graduate from high school. Moreover, if children graduate from high school, on average they will earn $500,000 more, live nine years longer and be six times less likely to be arrested.

The second reason why Oklahoma should focus on the Potts Foundation’s scientific research: At a time when we crave unity and community, early education is an issue on which almost everyone can agree.

The October conference was especially valuable because it emphasized ways to appeal to the business community as well as bipartisan political leadership to improve our children’s futures. Fishman emphasized in her presentation the messages that resonate with business people as well as the truths they can deliver best.

Business leaders as ideal audience, source for messages

Interestingly, one message that speaks to business leaders is the same one that I have been focusing on: To improve outcomes for children, we must build bridges to other providers. ReadyNation has found that efforts to link early childhood to broader health issues — as well as measures that fight child abuse — have impressed the business community. As I will explain further in subsequent pieces, the same thing applies to public education and other social services. Oklahoma will go bankrupt if we continue to maintain separate silos for prenatal care, nutrition, health and mental health, public schools, career tech and higher education.

ReadyNation has also found that business people are especially effective in explaining the importance of evidence-based, high-quality programs. They are particularly good at presenting early education’s bang for the buck in workforce–training for higher-paying jobs. Business people are exceptionally credible in conveying messages about accountability through continuous quality improvement.

Best of all (for me) business leaders can speak for two of the issues that are most important (but most ignored) in terms of inner-city education. Especially in poor schools, we must offer supports for the whole range of abilities: cognitive, social/emotional (“executive functioning”) as well as stressing the importance of integrating early STEM and early reading skills.

Labels impede acceptance of research

For the last three decades, Nobel laureate James Heckman, who attended Harding High School, has been widely credited with nailing down many details in the case for early education. Given the compelling arguments for early education, the question arises: Why have we been so slow in rallying around this common sense effort?

When I was in elementary school, the need to start early in childhood development was widely accepted. Somehow, during the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s, early investments in our children came to be labeled as “progressive” and “liberal,” so we put those financial imperatives on hold until definitive scientific evidence was provided.

But let’s bring this argument for early education as a long-delayed opportunity full circle. In an attempt to bind our nation’s political wounds, I’d like to mention the citation provided above for the key finding that 90 percent of brain growth occurs by age 5. We didn’t get documentation from Harvard for that little nugget of knowledge until just the other day — 1975.