Ounce of Prevention Fund Luncheon
April 17, 2007
Remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair
Thank you for that kind introduction. I am delighted to be here today. Talking about the importance of early learning is one of my favorite things, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to express my gratitude to the folks at the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
At the Gates Foundation, we are enthusiastic about the work we’re doing with our partners to help young children in Washington state grow up ready to succeed.
But the simple fact is, we wouldn’t have come anywhere near as far as we have without the Ounce’s example. We have learned so much from the Ounce and from Harriet Meyer. For my money, Harriet is the best early learning advocate on the planet.
Let me tell you a little bit about how we at the foundation arrived at the conclusion the Ounce came to 25 years ago—that focusing on our youngest children is one of the smartest investments we can make in the future; that it’s good business to invest in kids.
We start all our work from the premise that all lives have equal value. Impoverished children in an African village or an Indian slum are just as precious as your children or mine.
So our goal is to ensure that all people have the opportunity to lead a healthy, productive life. That means that most of our work takes place in poor countries in the developing world, where inequities are most stark.
We are committed to improving the health of millions of people who are sick and dying from diseases we don’t even have in the United States. And since poor health has many devastating causes and effects, we also fight hunger and poverty in developing countries.
Here in the United States, we’re relatively lucky. Children don’t die from diseases we have vaccines for. They don’t starve to death. And yet inequities still divide this country. Some people have to fight tooth and nail for opportunities that others take for granted.
According to a mountain of statistics, children who grow up poor are at greater risk than their peers of having bad things happen in their lives—things like dropping out of school, serving time in jail, or failing to find steady work that pays enough to support a family. You don’t need statistics to see how poverty will perpetuate itself.
At the foundation, we started by asking ourselves a few simple questions:
- Why do kids go awry?
- Why do they wind up unemployed or in prison?
- Why do they quit school?
And we kept moving further and further back in what sociologists call “the problem cycle.” Not surprisingly, we got to the end of the line; we traced these problems all the way back to a child’s earliest years.
By the time many children get to the first day of school, they’re already behind. And chances are they won’t ever catch up.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about five-year-olds who can analyze the use of metaphor in Mark Twain’s lesser works. I’m talking about the basic building blocks of making a child ready to learn. Can she stand still in line? Can he follow simple rules and instructions? Can she cooperate with other children?
Imagine what it must be like for a child who isn’t ready for the first day of kindergarten. On one side of her is a girl writing her ABCs. On the other side is a boy who can tell time. And yet she doesn’t recognize a single letter. Right away, school is a place where she feels like a failure, where she feels overwhelmed.
When she comes home and her mother asks: “What did you learn in school today?” her answer is, “Mom, I hate school.”
It is not just that she doesn’t have the same skills as other students in her class. It is that she’s lost confidence in herself, and formed a bitter attitude about school. What chance does this child have to excel over the next 12 years?
Even if only a few children had to suffer through this experience, it would be tragic. But when you see the numbers, you realize that it is more than just a tragedy. It is a moral failure and public policy disaster.
It is a moral failure because we give less help to the children who need it more. We cannot call ourselves the land of opportunity until we give substance to the proposition that we value poor children as much as we value everybody else.
It’s a public policy disaster because dysfunctional children grow up to be dysfunctional citizens. And dysfunctional citizens make a dysfunctional society.
Think of the ripple effect that wasting one child’s talent has. Then multiply that times millions of kids.
A study from here in Chicago shows that children who don’t attend pre-kindergarten are 70 percent more likely to be arrested by the time they’re 18. Another study from North Carolina shows that girls who don’t have positive early learning experiences are much more likely to get pregnant as teenagers.
These are just some of the costs of our failure to prepare our children for school. One study actually quantifies it. For every dollar we invest in early learning, taxpayers save seven dollars.
Most of you are businesspeople. You know what makes a strong workforce—especially as our economy evolves. It cannot thrive if the people driving it don’t have the skills they need.
Many business owners report that it’s hard to find employees who can do the work that’s expected of them. One of the best ways to address this problem is to help young children prepare for a long life of learning. That’s why it’s good business to invest in kids.
Our current model is bad business, and it doesn’t take long to see the consequences start piling up. More than one million teenagers drop out of high school every year.
Here in Chicago the graduation rate is barely 50%. And last year, a really shocking study revealed that ninth graders in Chicago Public Schools have just an eight percent chance of getting a college degree by the time they’re in their mid-20s.
We’re helping to fund the school district’s work to improve high schools, but the problem doesn’t start in high school. It doesn’t start in college. It starts long before that—on Day One—and it has ramifications that last forever. We know that the first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.
That’s a lot of bad news, but thankfully, there is good news too. First, we know how to fix this problem. We know—from scientific research and the experience of pioneering organizations like the Ounce—what it takes for children to grow up confident and secure.
What they need most is a lot of affection from the people who take care of them. Without that sense of intimacy, infants get stressed. They have a hard time forming a sense of belonging. Scientists have actually shown that children with fewer intimate attachments have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their blood.
I’ve seen first hand how important this kind of human attachment is, because I’ve visited lots of childcare centers. I’ve been to low-quality centers—sadly, that’s the majority of them.
The teachers aren’t properly trained. It isn’t their fault—it’s our fault as a society for not valuing the work they do—but they don’t know how to engage the children, or their parents.
But these days, few families have the luxury to decide that mom or dad will stay home from work. They need child care, and they don’t have affordable, quality options.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve also seen great child care centers. After all, I’ve visited Educare Chicago. I sensed the difference in an instant. This was a place where kids belong. The teachers are professionals, and they’re focused on the children. It was obvious that the kids were learning—and having fun while they were at it.
I want to tell you two other things that impressed me about Educare Chicago. First, the children at the center really were the children who needed help most urgently. I don’t get too excited about early learning programs that do a great job with middle class families. It’s much harder to work with kids who face the toughest challenges.
Taking on hard cases is central to Educare’s mandate. Educare has proven that it’s possible to make a difference for the poorest children. Done right, the way Educare does it, early learning can be a key ingredient in the fight against poverty.
The second thing that impressed me is that Educare understands that parents will always be children’s first and most important teachers. We all know how hard it is these days to juggle being a full-time parent and earning a living full time. Parents want help with this balancing act, and Educare provides it by working closely with parents in their communities.
But knowing how to fix the problem is a far cry from actually fixing it. The next step is to make sure that all kids have access to high-quality early learning.
In our current school system’s way of thinking, children start learning at age five, when they enter kindergarten. Before that, we assume that development just happens naturally. Well, that approach isn’t working, and we need a new one.
We need to rethink the dimensions of public education in this country. We have to implement this new wisdom about what it means to teach our children well.
We’re not talking about early learning as an afterthought, a little adjunct to the real work of schooling. We’re talking about a major reform. And frankly, it’s going to take a lot of time, money, and political will to do the job right.
But it can be done right. Several European countries offer compelling models. For example, the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy has been providing cutting-edge early childhood education for 50 years. France has had nearly universal early learning for a century.
In England, the system is newer, but national policy is making wonderful educational experiences more and more accessible to all young children.
The point is: It is possible to deliver high-quality childcare to lots and lots of children and families and it’s possible to teach parents how to be effective with their children. We’re finally getting started here. At least a dozen states have made early learning a policy priority. Illinois may well be the best example. Due largely to the work of the Ounce, this state has been a leader in childcare policy for 25 years.
At the foundation, we like to say you’ve taken the tortoise approach. You’ve been slow and steady advocates for good public policy, chipping away in one legislative session after the next.
With the approach you’re taking, we know that you can keep reaching new milestones. And it’s absolutely essential that you do, because even though you’re ahead of the curve, the curve is way behind the needs of our children. No state is doing enough to make sure children grow up ready to learn.
My state of Washington is a perfect example. We simply haven’t had a solid, statewide approach to early learning. Until now. Finally, we are building momentum behind the idea of making sure that all children are ready for school on their first day.
Our effort builds on the Ounce’s experience. We have even gone so far as to copy the Ounce’s relationship with the Boeing Corporation, which has helped support early learning efforts in both states.
It is up to all of us in this room to make sure we get on track and stay there. We need to demand that our leaders start paying attention to how they serve young children. We have to keep the pressure on. That’s the only way we can transform high-quality early learning from something a few states are trying into a national movement. As I said, it’s going to take time, money, and political will.
Imagine what the future could be like if we meet our goal.
The next time a mother asks her little girl what she learned on the first day of school, she doesn’t have to say, “I hate school.” She can answer with pride.
And 13 years later, on her last day of high school, they can applaud her on graduation day, as she looks forward with excitement to all the possibilities that life has to offer her.
If we make sure all children are ready to learn when they get to school, then every child can have the same hope for the future.
Let’s make it happen.