Shakira Lends Voice to Early Childhood Education Initiative

President Barack Obama’s newly announced “Invest in US” campaign for early childhood education has gotten another boost of star power from singer Shakira.

“I think we can all agree that education is one of the best tools we have to ensure that our children reach their full potential,” Shakira said in a video shown at the White House Summit on Early Education earlier this month. Speaking of her experience building schools in Latin America, she continued, “I have witnessed the miraculous transformational power that education has to change the lives of kids, their families and entire communities.”

She was unable to attend in person because she is currently pregnant with her second child.

On Dec. 10, Obama announced $1 billion in public-private funding for early education programs, calling it “one of the best investments we can make.”

Federal monies will be supplemented by $330 million pledged by corporations, foundations and individuals.

The Need for Education

The current push toward early education programs is driven by scientific findings that children can take in information much more rapidly in their early years, with more than 85% of the brain being formed by age five.

That translates into early education being a good monetary investment on a policy level. James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist, calculates that it takes 35% to 50% more money to improve a teen’s skills to the level where they would be had he or she gotten pre-kindergarten schooling. Similar calculations, estimates and studies abound.

“Research overwhelmingly shows that the most effective use of taxpayer dollars on education is for kids in their early years, the younger the better,” Fawn Johnson wrote for the National Journal Dec. 15.

Where to Go Next

Obama has been attempting to gain support for early education initiatives for much of his time in office. He included it in his State of the Union address both last year and this year, but thus far has made little headway on the issue with Congress. At the Dec. 10 summit, he asked for the Congress that will take office next year with Republican control in both houses to “work with me to make pre-K available for all of our kids.”

With such strong support of the value of early education, why have the Obama Administration’s efforts been met with mixed responses? Part of the criticism from the right — which approves of education spending in general — has to do specifically with Head Start, which critics say is little more than taxpayer-subsided day care.

The next step then, education experts say, is to figure out which educational strategies can provide lasting value. “While it’s clear that early interventions in babies and toddlers can cause huge positive outcomes, not all interventions are equal,” Johnson wrote in his interview of Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

Perry thinks that great teachers are the starting point. “The higher level skill of the teacher, the higher outcome for the child,” she says. “But there’s not unanimity of how do you find them, how do you train them.”

She also says that the public pressure on politicians is not quite strong enough to force all of them to act. This is why celebrity endorsements such as Shakira’s matter. But Perry thinks the issue is close to a tipping point, after which movement toward early education programs will be inevitable.

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