Early childhood experts from Project LAUNCH, Michael Rovaris and Deb Perry, discuss why now may be the time to achieve Pre-K for all.

This is an exciting time for professionals who work with young children and care about their well-being. President Obama’s recent proposal regarding universal pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) would expand Early Head Start and would provide federal matching dollars to states with the goal of providing preschool to every 4 year old from a moderate- or low-income family. In our nation’s current political and social climate, this plan has the potential to gain the traction needed to make real and lasting change. 

In his popular book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” He lists three elements that together are key to creating a tipping point: (1) context, (2) the “stickiness” of an idea, and (3) a small group of key people who believe in the idea. We believe that the president’s early childhood proposal represents a tipping point for improving young children’s futures.

Tipping Points Need Context

The current federal fiscal environment provides a context that demands careful attention to how every dollar is spent. With the sequestration upon us and federal agencies deciding how to implement across-the-board cuts, it is more important than ever that money spent on federal programs results in a positive return on investment. A notable study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, on the cost-benefit analysis of high-quality early childhood programs, demonstrated that they can yield a 1:7 rate of return. Another study by The Institute for a Competitive Workforce, recently referenced in the New York Times, suggests that every dollar spent on early childhood education today results in a savings of $2.50 to $17 in the future. 

Tipping Points Need “Stickiness”

While economic conditions inevitably change, science tends to have more staying power—i.e., “stickiness.” Research continues to back what we already know about the importance of brain development—and its connections to social-emotional health—during the first five years of life. During this time, the brain undergoes an extraordinary transformation, with billions of neurons connecting to one another. We now know that the experiences young children have and the relationships they form before they arrive in kindergarten have profound and long-lasting effects on their social and emotional health and cognition. This understanding—based in scientific evidence—is exciting because it allows us to really substantiate investments in high-quality programs that aim to maximize this window of development to equip all children with the skills they need to thrive and succeed throughout their lives. 

Tipping Points Need Champions

Finally, to reach the tipping point Gladwell says we need “a small group of key people who believe in the idea.” In a recent press conference, President Obama outlined the profound benefits of Pre-K access, which include higher graduation rates and reduced instances of crime and teenage pregnancy. Soon after, noteworthy and influential voices rallied in support of his plan, including Art Rolnick, former chairman of the Minnesota Federal Reserve; Jim Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist; and billionaire oilman George Kaiser, who spearheaded the recent expansion of Educare. Combined with the fiscal context and the “stickiness” of science, such an influential group may just be the final push that tips the needle.  

Universal Pre-K May Be a Tipping Point

Many events of the past year, such as the Sandy Hook shootings and Hurricane Sandy, forced us as a society to think more about the social emotional needs of our young children. Although it is regrettable that these discussions often occur in the wake of tragedies, these moments can serve to galvanize support for implementing well-tested interventions with a high likelihood of shifting the trajectories of millions of at-risk youngsters. In this climate of fiscal restraint, universal Pre-K can emerge as the tipping point to attract widespread support to help close the gap, enabling young children to arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed, and setting them on a path to become healthy and well-adjusted adults.

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