Childhood education a matter of national security

Posted Sept. 30, 2009, at 5:39 p.m.

If this nation wants to field the best, most effective fighting force, then we must ensure that our youth succeed academically, maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay on the right side of the law.

As retired general officers of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, we are aware of the serious warning flags that are raised when the latest numbers from the Pentagon reveal that upwards of 75 percent of young Americans are unable to join the military because they have a criminal history, are in poor physical condition or lack a high school diploma. While the U.S. armed services are proudly meeting current enlistment goals, those of us who have served in leadership positions are concerned about the future. Many of us have become involved with a nonprofit organization called “Mission: Readiness” dedicated to promoting a stronger American military by working to remove our recruiting barriers.

The global impact of technology continues to change the way our children learn and apply their lessons, and the impact of early childhood education becomes more significant. Decades of research show that early childhood education is a proven strategy to ensure that more Americans achieve academic success, stay in school and work toward a productive life. With America’s military services stressing the value of education, it is vital that academic fitness be a strong partner with physical fitness and adherence to the laws of our land.

Currently, nearly one out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma. Here in Maine we are doing better with high school graduation rates, but there are still nearly 20 percent of our teenagers who fail to finish school on time. American students’ test scores in math, science and reading comprehension continue to lag behind those scores of youth in most other industrialized countries. Unless we help our youth get on the right track, our military readiness and ultimately our national security will be undermined. If this nation wants to field the best, most effective fighting force, then we must ensure that our youth succeed academically, maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay on the right side of the law.

An early start to learning is critical to success in school and life. Children at risk for failure in school respond well to early childhood education, as was shown in a Michigan study. The academic and social progress of at-risk children enrolled in a high quality Michigan preschool program was compared to a group of children who did not enroll in the program. The researchers who conducted the study found that the group who were enrolled in early childhood education was 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school and half as likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 40.

Clearly, an early start to education is critical to success in school and in life. Expanding access to more at-risk children will ensure that upcoming generations of Americans have better options later in life, including a military career if they choose to pursue one. The investment in education that leads to better performing students will also lead to a more competitive workforce and a stronger, more vital military force for America.

President Barack Obama has pointed to early childhood education as a key area of improvement for schools and has proposed a new Early Learning Challenge Fund to provide competitive grants to the states to improve access to high quality education programs for at-risk children up to the age of five. While economic challenges face our nation and every state, the value of education for our youth cannot be overstated. Substantial bipartisan support for early childhood education recognizes how important it is to get our kids off to the right start. We are fortunate in Maine to have a congressional delegation fully aware and supportive of the importance of education. As Congress moves forward with the Early Learning Challenge Fund, we urge Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, to continue to champion early childhood investments.

By investing our energy and resources in nation’s youth we can make new strides toward a common goal — a safer, stronger and more prosperous America.

Nelson E. Durgin, retired Maj. Gen USAF is a former adjutant general for Maine who resides in Bangor. Robert Carmichael, retired Brig. Gen. U.S. Army is a former assistant adjutant general who resides in Bucksport.

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