Sunday, January 6, 2008

Early Ed: The Next Frontier

Virtually every American child spends some 40 hours a week in school for nine months out of the year, every year between the age of 5 and the age of 18. Many of us stay in school far longer. But that wasn’t always the case. As recently as 1940, fewer than 40% of all young adults finished high school and just 6% finished college. (Today, more than 80% of young adults finish high school, and nearly 30% earn a BA.) The expansion of educational opportunity that occurred in the U.S. over the last century made America a global leader in educational attainment and put education at the center of the American dream.

But in the last decade or two, the American educational expansion has slowed and the rest of the world has begun to catch up. High school graduation rates have remained more or less constant since the 1980s. And while college enrollment rates are still creeping upwards, for more and more college entrants, the path to a BA is long and winding.

Given this, it’s interesting that American educational policy-makers have become increasingly focused on early education. Rather than working directly to keep more 16 year-olds in high school, or bring more 18 year-olds into college, we’ve lately been focused on getting more 4 year-olds into preschool and more 5 year-olds into full-day Kindergarten. It looks like California may be the latest to follow this trend. The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that Gov. Schwarzenegger poised to launch a “Year of Education” in California, calling for preschool for all Californians and expanding the school day for the state’s Kindergarteners. Will expanding educational opportunities for young children have lasting effects on American educational inequalities and attainments?

UPDATE: Actually, before we get to these questions, California's budget crisis raises another, even more fundamental question: Are taxpayers willing to pay for an expansion of early education?

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