Editor's note: David Lawrence Jr., president and co-chair of the Children's Movement of Florida and retired publisher of the Miami Herald, spoke in Tampa last week to a joint gathering of the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Here are those remarks, adapted and condensed for publication.
The greatest American "invention" was not the light bulb or the telephone or even the Internet. It was the public school.
Yet we surely need — without diminishing any basic principles — to do some things differently. Most of all, we need to bring the children to formal school ready — and eager — to learn. Listen to this from the latest issue of New Republic in an article headlined "The Two-Year Window: The Science of Babies and Brains." Jonathan Cohn makes the "connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life" and goes on to say: "The first two years, however, happen to be the period of a child's life in which we invest the least."
Think about the first several years of life as the "feeder pattern" to public school. Let's start with a few truths:
• 90 percent of brain development occurs during the first five years of life, setting the path for all of life.
• We know from research that a dollar spent wisely up front in a child's life has a return of seven dollars or more that won't need to be spent on police and prosecution and prison — not to mention the billions we spend on remedial education.
• Ours is a country where two-thirds of mothers with children between birth and age 5 work outside the home. For most parents (including three of my own children with their children), child care is the very real world. Child care is the "feeder pattern" to the public school system. Only high-quality child care contributes to positive and real outcomes for children. Meanwhile, up to 80 percent of child care in America is not much more than "storage and warehousing."
• National research tells us that about 30 percent of all children enter formal school significantly behind; most of those children then get further behind.
Even if we know all this, we don't act as though we really know it. Thus, we are challenged by real-world consequences:
• The research tells us that if a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, by the end of fourth grade, 88 of those 100 remain mediocre readers. It is not impossible, but it is terribly difficult to get children back on track if the early years have been neglected.
• Two years ago, a group of senior retired generals and admirals reported: "75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 (cannot) enlist in the military because they fail to graduate high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit." Is this not a national security issue?
The author Clayton Christensen, in his book Disrupting Class, says: "A rather stunning body of research … suggests that starting … reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle or high school, is far too late. By some estimates," he writes, "98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined."
Ours is a country where half of our high school graduates lack the written, spoken, thinking and problem-solving skills that employers seek. The wisest, most cost-effective solution isn't in fixing fourth grade, seventh grade or somewhere in high school, but rather getting the earliest years right so a child can have momentum throughout life.
This summer I visited a child care center where I read Old MacDonald Had a Farm to 3- and 4-year-olds. The cover showed Mr. MacDonald in overalls with a straw hat and bunny ears popping through. Not one child knew what a bunny rabbit looked like. Most of these children are going to be way behind in first grade — and maybe forever. It made me want to cry. These children are coming to your schools — our schools.
How can it possibly make sense that we spend $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile and less than $3,000 for a child in pre-K? I do not want anyone to tell me that we cannot afford to do right by children. Do not tell me that times are tough — I know they are — and that children should wait for "better times."
In a state of wisdom, in a country of wisdom, children would be the highest priority of elected leaders — higher than roads, higher than prisons, higher than anything. This is simply the American dream.