If any further evidence were needed that Maine and the nation need to improve early childhood education, it came last week from military leaders. A lack of learning opportunities in a child’s first year not only increases the chances of that child dropping out of school and ending up in the juvenile judicial system, it also weakens our armed forces.
A recent national report found that three-quarters of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unfit for military service or other careers from having failed to graduate from high school, having engaged in criminal activity or being in poor physical condition. The military has lowered its requirements in recent years to ensure it has enough personnel, a problem exacerbated by the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Published by the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, the report finds that 30 percent of young Americans lack a high school diploma, 10 percent are ineligible for military service because of a criminal record, and 27 percent do not meet military fitness guidelines.
“This report has given me tremendous cause for concern and should be a wake-up call in Maine and nationally,” Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, Maine adjutant general and commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, said during a recent visit to a Bangor elementary school.
Pre-K programs not only promote early reading and math skills, they also cultivate curiosity, character and social skills, said Nelson Durgin, a retired Air Force major general. Military culture demands self-discipline, the ability to work with others and an attitude of acceptance toward those who are different, Mr. Durgin said. Youngsters without the benefit of an early introduction to social and academic expectations are less likely to be able to participate in the armed forces or other life endeavors.
He could have added, as others have, that they are also more likely to live in poverty and to become part of the juvenile justice system — all at great cost to the U.S. and Maine economies.
A report released last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that two-thirds of the nation’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. The situation is even worse for children from low-income families.
McKinsey & Co. estimates that the U.S. gross domestic product could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher in 2008 if U.S. students had met the educational achievement level of higher-performing nations between 1983 and 1998.
Promoting early childhood learning is more about political will than money (although that will be cited as an excuse for inaction). It is past time lawmakers, business owners, military leaders, parents and others found the will to tackle this problem.