October 30, 2015


The Social, Moral and Economic Imperative of Our Generation

In a sense, I feel I’m speaking to you on behalf of the 7-8 million 3 and 4-year-olds in our nation who today do not have access to quality early childhood experiences.  I am worried yet hopeful – worried about the future of our children and the future of our nation, but hopeful, indeed confident that we can do something about it.

We face an overwhelming imperative – to give every child a fair chance to develop his or her God-given abilities.

I view this as the moral, the social and the economic imperative of our generation.  We must give all our children the fair opportunity to grow up to be educated, independent and contributing citizens.  The future of our nation depends on this.

We talk about a lot of deficits today in this country:  budget deficits, trade deficits, job deficits.  But there is one deficit that impacts all the other deficits and it is the deficit in the early development and education of our youngest, children ages 0-5.  A deficit compared to other countries.  A deficit marked by huge income and racial disparities and a deficit we not only know how to close but do so in a way that makes it a financial no brainer.

I first started to work on early childhood education almost 30 years ago.  We remain far from where we should be.  What makes this particularly alarming is the compelling evidence of the impact which early childhood development has on the life- long future of our nation’s young. 

We know the critical gaps in the development of our young adult population:  

Our high school dropout rate is 20%, almost exactly what is was a quarter century ago and it is 40% in many major metro areas. This at a time when an estimated 70% of new jobs will require MORE than a high school education.  No wonder that, in a nation with 10 million unemployed, we have 4 million jobs that can’t be filled with qualified candidates. 

The consequences of being a high school dropout are worse than ever, and they are multi-generational.  Unemployment rates in double digits.  Too little income to support a family.  And it effects the next generation.  Only five percent of non-high school graduates have children who went on to college.  And I cannot get out of my mind that about 70% of the incarcerated men and women in our nation, a nation having the highest incarceration rates in the world, are high school dropouts.  This is tragedy of the highest order.

The root causes of high school drop-outs go way back. 

They go back to whether a child is ready for kindergarten.  Less than half of the children are and poverty makes the decisive difference.  On learning proficiency, we know that our students invariably end up in the bottom half of those tested among all developed nations.  But did you know that the students from the wealthiest families score above all other nations while those from the poorest districts scored the lowest.  Here we witness one of the tragic symptoms of the plague of poverty.

And it goes on.  A generation ago we led the world in the percentage of young adults who had completed college.  In one generation we slipped to 12th.  And here again, poverty is taking its toll.  Less than 10% of children born into the lowest income quintile will go on to college.

The sad fact is that over 25% of our young people today are simply not developing the workforce and career readiness that we would want, that we would demand, for any one of our children.

Ladies and gentlemen, believe me, it doesn’t have to be this way. We cannot allow it to remain this way. Not if we are to be the Nation we aspire to be.

The last decade has brought us compelling evidence that quality early childhood experience for our children makes a lifelong difference. 

What is that evidence I refer to:
1.     It starts with the undeniable fact that 90% of brain growth, affecting not only cognitive skills but emotional health, occurs in the first five years of life.

2.     Of greatest importance to someone like me who has spent a lifetime trying to ferret out and act on data, we now can document the direct, tightly linked, on-going impact of quality early childhood experience to a) being ready for kindergarten, then on b) reading proficiently in the third grade and that, in turn, on c) graduating from high school and all of life that follows.

 Let me explain. Experience in Southwest Ohio over the past decade shows that 86% of those children who tested “ready for kindergarten” were reading proficiently by the end of the third grade compared to only 59% of those students who were not ready. 

Statistics like this can be mind-numbing but think with me for a moment what would it feel like as a child to be in a class and not be able to read like your fellow students. You feel out of it; inferior; different. So what do you do?  You struggle. You withdraw.  You may opt out. And sadly a lot of students do opt out. Right out of school.  We know that those students not reading proficiently are 4 times more likely to drop out before completing high school; and if they were poor, they were 11 times more likely to drop out. 

3.     Now, and this is vitally important, we now know that quality early childhood experience can help children from all families, including the very poorest families, be ready for kindergarten and hence be reading proficiently by the third grade.  Let me tell you my story of the maps. 

Deeply concerned about the impact of poverty on kindergarten readiness, I compared two maps—one showing kindergarten readiness scores and the other, income levels- for each of the neighborhoods in Greater Cincinnati. The picture that emerged was just what you would expect: almost a direct correlation between the two.  But there were some exceptions. One was Winton Woods, one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Cincinnati, made up almost entirely of government subsidized housing.  Here I found students having kindergarten readiness scores about equal to the highest income neighborhoods. I wanted to understand why. 

What I discovered was a quality pre-kindergarten school with dedicated, well-trained teachers; I observed young children who couldn’t care less that I was in their class room and lots of parent involvement. Not only that, this school reached out to make sure families had other support they needed like health care and food for the table.  The experience in Winton Woods is no exception. We now have statistical evidence that children from the very poorest families can be on a path to success if they are given a quality early childhood experience. 

4.     There are many reasons why business folks like me care deeply about this issue. One is that we are competitive people. We become paranoid when we see someone else doing something better than we are which we know is fundamental for our long-term success. That’s what we see happening now on early childhood experience. We see other developed countries providing 90% of their 4 year olds with quality pre-K while we are covering less than half and maybe as low as 25%. We see China committing to have 70% of its children having not one, not two, but three years of pre-K by the year 2020. Yes, other countries are getting it; and we better, too. The reality is that most families in the United States cannot afford quality pre-K for their children. The cost represents over 25% of the average family’s income. It is wrong, it is unfair for a child’s future to be so influenced by their family’s income, by the zip code in which they are born. We talk in our country today about the widening gap between those with wealth and those without. And it is getting to all-time record levels, with the top 10% accounting for 70% of total wealth. Views on the importance of this will differ but there is one thing we should all be able to agree on:  every child should have a fair chance to make the most of their life by having a fair start.

5.     We have learned something else that explains why hundreds of business leaders like me are doing all we can to provide early childhood experiences for every child.  Put bluntly, it is a financial no-brainer. One study after another--and I have personally reviewed dozens of them-- prove that the cost of quality pre-K at about $8,000 per year pays for itself many fold, at least 2 to 1. Why? Because of the higher taxes that come from higher incomes and from the lower costs of special education, repeat grades, social welfare, health care and incarceration which too often follow those students who fall out of the system. 

I have had people ask me why, in light of all these facts, is it taking so long to provide funding for quality early childhood experience for all children. One reason is that much of the evidence I have cited is relatively recent. Another is that the "voice" of those most affected is faint. Another is that there have been a few studies that have indicated that the cognitive benefits provided by pre-K tend to fade out in time. 

Without going into a lot of detail, the overwhelming majority of studies do underscore the cognitive benefit.  But beyond that, too many analyses miss the lasting impact of quality childhood experience on a child’s emotional and social development. Let me tell you a quick story. I happened to be outside a museum in Cincinnati last spring and saw a group of about 30 kindergarteners from one of our poorest schools eating lunch. Their teachers were sitting together at a nearby table. I went up to the teachers and asked if any of the children in the group had attended pre-Kindergarten. Yes, about 4-5 had they told me. I then asked whether they could they see a difference in the children who had had pre-K and those that didn't. The teachers’ reaction was immediate and electric. They almost arose from their seats. Indeed it did, they exclaimed. I asked in what way. The answer was not what I expected. It was not that they could read more letters or count more numbers. It was that they were willing to share; stay focused on task; work in a group, follow direction; not act out. 

Experts agree it is this impact of social and emotional development in addition to cognitive learning that explains why studies conducted over 20+ and more years show that quality pre-K makes life-long differences in employment, income level, family formation and health. 

Is quality pre-K a magic bullet? No.  I have yet to find one of those. But it is the single most effective and financially rewarding intervention we can make to help all children develop into productive fulfilled adults. 

I liken quality pre-K to a vaccine which, even though not a total or universal cure, makes a life-changing difference for a significant number of children. What’s more, the cost of this vaccine is paid back many times. Yet, despite these facts, we are unconscionably failing to provide this vaccine to over half of our children.  This is crazy. We say it all the time:  our future lies with our children. Yet, we are failing to act on that truth.  

Doing so will require more money. However, not only will this investment come back to us financially; we should keep the cost in perspective. Funding quality pre-K for every 4-year-old in America represents only about 5% of our defense budget.  Even more pointedly, the cost of providing quality development experience to over 5 million four-year-olds is half of what is spent on incarcerating 2.3 million men and women each year.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me sum it up simply.  We need to act on what we have learned works if we are to be the Nation we aspire to be – economically, socially and morally.  I choose the word “morally” intentionally.  I do not see how we can any longer honor this sober promise of our Declaration of Independence if we do not honor what we now know to be true.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I believe we have reached the point of having the knowledge and the experience to assert that it is the inalienable right of every child to have the quality learning experience during the most important development stage of their life, ages 0-5, that provides them a fair chance to be all they can be.


I will close my remarks with some good news and a challenge.  The public gets it.  Poll after poll shows that strong majorities of all parties agree on the need to fund quality early childhood development for all children.

And coverage is expanding, albeit slowly.  Governors from over 30 states, red and blue, increased funding in the most recent budget cycle.  An increasing number of cities, including Denver, San Antonio, now New York, are providing universal coverage.  Cincinnati has committed to do the same.

Yes there is momentum.  For the first time, I am convinced universal coverage will happen.  But we have a long, long way to go.  Only about 25% of 3 or 4-year-olds today receive the benefit of quality early childhood experience.  With the evidence in hand, that borders on being criminal.

The time to act is now, here in New Hampshire and across the country.  I challenge you to learn enough about early childhood development that you can become a fierce advocate for its expansion, with your friends, with the business community, with your legislators.  Lobby every government leader you can to provide the funding needed to expand quality early childhood development experiences to all families and all children.  Ask them where they stand on this issue.  Let them know that if they don’t support it, they won’t have your support.  Tell them that loudly and clearly.  Tell them to do it now.  Tell them if we do not do this, we won’t have the community, the nation, the future we need and aspire to.  That is the plain and simple truth.  If not we, who?  If not now, when?  Our children, our community, our very nation are counting on us.

Theodore Roosevelt said something on October 12, 1912 at Madison Square Garden that should inspire us today:  “Perhaps once in a generation there comes a chance for people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights.  We know there are in life injustices which we are powerless to remedy, but we also know that there is much injustice which can be remedied.  We propose to lift the burdens from the poor and the oppressed.  We propose to stand for the sacred rights of childhood.” 

That is what we are talking about today, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Let us join together to provide the same fair opportunity for all children that we would spend our every dollar and ounce of effort to provide for our children and grandchildren.

Let us give every child a fair chance.  This is the moral, social and economic imperative of our generation.

1 comment:

  1. You have written, " I challenge you to learn enough about early childhood development that you can become a fierce advocate for its expansion, with your friends, with the business community, with your legislators. " --What information resources do you advise? ~Cathy Clark