The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 29, 2014

My Turn: Restore the U.S. as the world’s leader


The Daily Item

— Too often, studies show the United States lagging its competitor nations in the math and science skills of its students. Even when our students maintain their academic skills from year to year, so many other nations unfortunately pull ahead so that we regress further in global rankings. Our failures create a ripple effect far into the future, diminishing the supply of intelligent, skilled, capable people to staff our workplaces and keep our nation and state competitive in today’s world marketplace. 

Now is the time to shrink the skills gap and restore the U.S. as the world’s leader. The priorities we set and the investments we make at this moment will have a dramatic impact on whether our children attain the skills necessary to power the future of our country and our world. 

High-quality early childhood education is one of the most effective investments we as a society can make to build a world-class workforce and strengthen Pennsylvania businesses. The link between early childhood and workforce capabilities has been proven time and again through long-term research. 

In this century, 60 percent of new jobs will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce — another indicator of our inability to compete in a sophisticated global marketplace. When I started in the grocery business, cashiers ran unsophisticated registers. Today, customers are checking themselves out. That means fewer jobs for cashiers, and more jobs for people designing and maintaining the highly technical systems that price, scan, replenish the inventory the goods that stores sell. 

If Pennsylvania can’t supply the workers needed for these complex tasks, businesses will not locate here. It’s just that simple. 

Quality early childhood education is the essential first step in the development of skills that employers increasingly demand. Research has proven that children who participate in high-quality early learning programs have graduation rates that are 44 percent higher than their peers, will earn 36 percent more as adults, and enter the workforce with sharper communications, collaboration and critical thinking skills. 

Our country requires a skilled workforce, but U.S. students today are not on pace to meet these needs. The majority of fourth- and eighth-graders are not proficient in both math and reading, and sadly, most children reading below grade level at the end of fourth grade will not graduate from high school, according to a Harvard University study. 

Again, we turn to high-quality early childhood education to prepare children to start school on strong foundations of learning. 

Studies show that achievement gaps among children open early — even as young as 3 years old — and are very difficult to close by age 18. If we’ve any chance of closing the gaps, it must be done early. Quality early learning assures that children enter school ready to learn and continue succeeding as they progress from grade to grade and school to school. 

We live in a region that’s rich with opportunities for residents driven to make a good living, support their families, and pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, those opportunities don’t do any good for people who unfortunately lack the educational background the jobs demand. When businesses can’t find people to fill the jobs essential to their growth and success, they will go elsewhere — and with them go the Susquehanna Valley’s prospects for economic vitality. 

Here in Pennsylvania, we thank Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature for their recent commitment to funding quality early childhood education in the 2013-14 budget. Plus, the new initiative, Rising Stars, will help more families access not just any early childhood education but the best-quality programs — the type proven to improve academic and social outcomes. 

Still, there’s so much to be done. If we stand any chance of building a worldclass workforce and retaining top-flight businesses, we must to continue to invest now in quality early childhood education. It’s time to assure our youngest children, ages birth to 5, the foundational basis for success in school, work and life. 

Norman S. Rich is a member of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission and retired president and CEO, Weis Markets, Inc.