As the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis continue into its second year, we are already seeing symptoms of a “lost generation” both in America and around the world.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on children and their families, with decreased educational and social opportunities, rising rates of childhood hunger, homelessness, and anxiety and depression. A growing number of children — particularly from already marginalized communities — are falling even further behind.
Yet, there is also a significant opportunity for the Biden administration — with the help of all facets of American and global society — to reinvest in and reimagine an educational system that builds back better from the pandemic, and lays the groundwork for a brighter, more equitable, and prosperous future.
To achieve that future for all children, we need to invest in education as the critical priority it is. The aftermath of the 2008-2009 Great Recession left the U.S. with a legacy of severe cuts to education budgets in many states, and an overall decline in spending. But with schools bracing for nation-wide budget cuts of up to 10 percent, mobilizing resources towards education remains more important than ever. We applaud the Biden administration’s proposed plans for early childhood education. While we also appreciate the administration’s goal of allocating $170 billion for school-aged education as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief, support for our youngest learners must also be a critical part of our country’s recovery plan.
Early childhood education supports the development of children 0 to 5 years old when they are in an accelerated learning and growing mode and are highly influenced by the environment and the interactions with people surrounding them. These critical years are pivotal in our development: over 90 percent of our brain develops before the age of five, starting with sensory pathways followed by vocabulary, and higher-order cognitive function — in short, our ability to think, learn, and grow.
This early childhood period effectively sets the stage for the rest of our lives, and with very real impacts: children who do not meet their developmental potential are forfeiting up to an estimated quarter of their adult earnings. Without much-needed care and attention, children are already behind by the time they enter the school system. As important, the first five years also determine whether children have a sturdy or fragile foundation for emotional learning, health, and behavior. They are fundamental in developing emotional intelligence, adaptability, and resilience.
As important as increasing investment in education is, we need to change how we invest in education. While the U.S. spends approximately $12,500 on elementary and secondary education per student — 35 percent more than other higher-income countries — American students perform consistently worse than their counterparts in these countries in math, reading, and science. Moreover, America has traditionally invested more in interventions later in life than in prevention, even though investments in early childhood education deliver tremendous economic and societal returns. For example, one study in Maryland estimated that investing in preschool education would save taxpayers nearly $20,000 per student by the time they graduated.
Reinventing the way we approach early childhood learning will not be an easy process, but we have a long legacy to build upon and the stakes could not be higher. Previous initiatives, such as Head Start made important dents by providing comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families. However, Head Start only serves around 41% of its eligible population.
To overcome this shortcoming, we need to ask hard questions about curriculum design, wrap-around social services, caregiving resources, and teacher training. Increasing parent and teacher support, in particular, are critical to creating an ongoing culture of learning and development both in and beyond the classroom, starting in the early years.
We also need to build partnerships and linkages at every level of society. Building local relationships between civil society, the private sector, and schools can help empower families and children. Public-private partnerships can also fund and scale initiatives at the local, state, and national levels. Moreover, tax incentives for private organizations can help increase dollars spent in early childhood education and deliver concrete progress, including upgrading daycare modules, sponsoring teacher education, and helping equip parents and caregivers with the knowledge to strengthen their learning environments.
As the Biden administration looks to re-establish America’s leadership, reputation and alliances around the world, early childhood education also offers an opportunity to demonstrate American commitments to a common future for all. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has defied borders, early education is a global problem and opportunity. While the international community has long valued and provided educational assistance worldwide, no one has taken the leadership necessary to protect and invest in early childhood development.
In fact, it is the one area of education and international development that is conspicuously missing — and its absence is fueling the global education crisis. By 2030, there will be over 1.6 billion young people on Earth — less than half of which will have the most basic reading and math skills to enter the workforce. Let alone the social-emotional skills and 21st-century competencies to succeed. If these trends continue, the impact on unemployment, security, and economic growth will impact us all.
The U.S. should set early childhood development high on the global education agenda by leveraging a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches. This includes domestic spending, international aid, support of our business community to unlock private financing and know-how, civil society initiatives, and spearheading efforts to overhaul spending priorities in multilateral institutions.
President Biden faces perhaps the most difficult set of crises of any incoming president since President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. As he has emphasized, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also face a series of interlocking economic, social, climate, and political crises. While each of these crises will require its own dedicated set of policies, there can be no long-term, sustainable progress on these crises without helping all children get an early start on realizing their full potential.
In politics as in education, it is never too early to start delivering on the promise of the future.
Justin van Fleet, Ph.D. is the President of Theirworld and the Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education.
Karthik Krishnan is the Global Chief Executive Officer of the Britannica Group.