How to beat inequality
February 15th, 2013
06:27 PM ET

How to beat inequality

By Fareed Zakaria

Arguably the most important and innovative idea proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night was his call for high-quality, universal pre-school education.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said. “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children…studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

He’s right. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the United States now does worse in terms of social mobility than many European countries – especially those in Scandinavia – as well as Canada. What does this mean in practice? It means that a poor child born in the United States is much more likely to remain poor than one born in Canada or Denmark.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project found last year, for example, that “more than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.” OECD research, meanwhile, found that while “at least 40 percent of the economic advantage that high-earnings fathers have over low-earnings fathers is transmitted to their sons,” the comparable figure for Nordic countries, Canada and Australia was less than 20 percent.

More from CNN: Reduce poverty by promoting schools

The main reason for this, I believe, is that many of the countries with higher mobility invest a great deal in children of all backgrounds, early in their lives, in terms of daycare, nutrition and education. And what the research increasingly shows is that if a child has missed out in the first few years of life in terms of nutrition, in terms of attention that adults pay to them, in terms of cognitive stimulation, then it is very difficult for them to catch up because they have been so disadvantaged – some of them neurologically. Countries with strong programs for the very young, in contrast, tend to have an advantage.

But such investment doesn’t just bring dividends for individual children – it also means there is much less of a burden placed on the school system. In the United States, many schools find themselves overstretched as they try to cope with the educational and behavioral problems of children that were severely disadvantaged from the outset.

So the answer, at least in theory, seems pretty clear – significant investment in early childhood health and welfare. The question, of course, is how do you do this in a smart way? That is why it is worth looking at some of the programs that have worked in Scandinavia, Canada, and even the United States. And this need not be a partisan issue in America. It might surprise some to hear that one of the most effective (and some might say European-style) models for early education comes from the deeply Republican state of Oklahoma.

It’s true that previous attempts at education reform such as Head Start have had mixed results, and we should examine why. But in taking this issue on, the president has gotten to the heart of America’s inequality problem.

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Topics: Education • United States

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soundoff (106 Responses)
  1. xyzzy

    Other countries will give students poor grades and may actually fail them!
    Can you imagine the horror and chaos that comes from having to earn a grade?

    February 19, 2013 at 12:24 am | Reply
  2. Freddy Marcel

    The main problem in the US is that schools push students into academic paths only, not technical ones. In Europe, where I live, Czech Republic to be exact, once you leave what we Americans call junior high (about 8th-9th grade) high school branches out into several different options, such as technical school, health school, business school, hospitality school, IT school, labour school, and university-aimed school. I had consistent problems with math at my high school in Virginia, did well in other subjects, but in the end dropped out in the 11th grade simply because I couldn't advance to my senior year, got discouraged with it all and went to work, which I enjoyed (I did return to school in terms of university, which, while I was again facing MATH, was sucessful in the long run and completed a BA in Social Work after finishing my military hitch) but I still think if I had gone to a school that didn't require subjects that were so baffling, namely math, I could have began university earlier, although I am quite happy with my career I have now, a writer and journo, but I did waste a lot of time before it. I challenge the concept of "European schools are communistic", so strongly flogged by the GOP types, and simply ask, why is it that European nations, such as the enemy of the Republicans, France, do so much better with quality of life statistics? Yes, there is unemployment in Europe, certainly, but the protests you see in Spain, Greece and elsewhere are not because of where they are now, but out of fear they'll turn into another America, with no health care for so many, no pensions, no workplace safety, soaring crime and destruction of the middle class. Make no mistake about it, the Republicans want to reestablish what was fact for so long, people who are poor, sick and powerless. Don't let that happen.

    February 19, 2013 at 1:27 am | Reply
  3. snowdogg

    Parents have a responsibility to demand a quality education for their children... which is work and involves a lot personal time and energy directed towards that goal. At least that is what my wife and I found raising our children. We even went to the point of having been a part of an "insurrection" which resulted in several teachers being fired for incompetence. Parents can't just sit back and assume that their children are being well-served by their local educational system.

    February 19, 2013 at 1:54 am | Reply
  4. Bob

    The main reason other countries can provide more opportunity for all citizens to get ahead is because they tax wealth, not just wages. They also maintain a minimum wage above the poverty line and provide universal health care. The children of poor Americans are pretty screwed from the day they are born, and will continue to be until we start taxing the rich again.

    February 19, 2013 at 3:29 am | Reply
  5. Ray Meyer

    Ray Meyer, Colorado
    Our neglect of early childhood education in America is the reverse side of our attention to less worthy things (We can all name a half-dozen without much prompting.), a clear choice stemming from VALUES. There's lots of research about the number of words that children enter kindergarten with. Those who've been read to and talked often have thousands more words that kids who have been babysat by a TV and pretty much left to themselves. Do they ever catch up? That's almost impossible. Mr. Obama would have done well to cite some of the eventual consequences of this deprivation. Again, research findings. Head Start has been treated like a throw-away program by Congress for 10+ years. It needs to be funded like Medicare. Essential. Something we all agree we can't do without! You don't know enough about Head Start? Read the research about it. Kids entering kindergarten after participating show all the earmarks of their more privileged peers. Create a better program if you can. But here's where we can begin. Just put more funding in. Oversight? Sure. Accountability? Go for it. But what we cannot afford is to study the alternatives while millions of kids get stuck without the help they need right now.

    February 19, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  6. vasechek

    "in taking this issue on, the president has gotten to the heart of America’s inequality problem" ....
    hardly that, fareed, hardly that. why stop at pre-school? why not look at how much being born to a healthy family with a healthy set of parents providing a healthy amount of care, involvement, safety, nutrition, and attention affects future earnings potential. you will be amazed at what you find – i promise you. and, to lead you to your most likely conclusion once the evidence has dawned on you, why not impound every newborn immediately after birth and throw them all into baselined, centrally controlled incubators at least until they graduate high school, just to level the playing field for everyone?

    February 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  7. SchoolBoardMember

    This article ignores the importance of a strong family life to the success of any child. More and more, we expect our schools to take the place of the family as the caretakers of children. If a child has a single, unwed mother, or there are substance abuse problems in the home or other social problems, the child has a much lower chance of success, regardless of the educational system. Blaming lack of mobility solely on the educational system is shortsided and ignores the true cause of our society's difficulties: the disintegration of the family.

    February 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  8. NorCalMojo

    Our education system is fine. If kids want to learn, they have the opportunity. The problem is we have huge groups of people who don't value education. The water is there, if the horses don't want to drink it.........well, the world needs ditch diggers.

    February 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  9. Boomer in Mo

    Most of the kids having trouble in school have parents, usually single parents, who can't be bothered to make sure they get to school every day, and on time. They don't make them do homework. They don't teach them any social skills. They allow them to run wild at every public event they take them to. Too many children in America today are simply wild animals wearing clothing. (I know that is not politically correct to say.) But teachers do try to tame the kids and teach them something. Sometimes they are even successful at it. They get paid low salaries to do so and are insulted by parents and politicians at every turn. I have no idea why anyone would want to be a teacher in this country.

    February 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  10. msp

    I read an article in Time magazine a few days ago as well as another article quoting a University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob study that say very HIGH quality preschool has been shown to make a difference in the most disadvantaged segment of children in the long run. However its effect on academic ability of middle to upper class children are much less. The scientists' opinion was that a bad home situation becomes a smaller problem when your kid goes to a GOOD preschool. When you have a good home environment, the preschool does not matter that much. By supporting universal preschool, you are essentially diluting the quality of the preschools spreading the scarce rescource to those who don't need it (middle to upper class families). In effect we are attempting to remove the underpriviledged children from their sperm/egg donors for maybe a few hours a day at least. And these children can get the 7 times benefit quoted. Sad but real. However such a program will not get broad political support because most people will not benefit from it. That is why politiician pushes for universal pre school to get voters' support, thus watering down any benefit the most needy can get.

    In my personal experience it seems to be true. I am the primary teacher of my children pretty much throughout the elementary school years. They will not miss a thing from not attending preschool. They learned more from me than any school anyhow. Throwing money at them does not reap much benefit. Whereas I have seen so many children with no family support that those few hours might just give them a fighting chance.

    I found that very sad and disappointing.

    February 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  11. JustLiberty

    Translations.
    UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL:. We want the government to raise our 4-year olds and we will force parents to submit to this. It does not matter if the parents are caring, concerned, involved, and highly educated.
    INVESTMENT: We will force parents to not only submit to this, but to pay for it.
    TRANSFERENCE OF ECONOMIC ADVANTAGE: Children who grow up in healthier cultures grow up healthier. Those who grow up in sick sub-cultures are more likely to have problems in life and in achievement.
    A SOLUTION: We will attempt to fix this by yanking all of the kids out of their homes and placing them in unnatural environments like 10 to 30 kids in a classroom with one adult for the entire day.
    40% OF THE BOTTOM QUINTILE: 8%
    Note that 60% of those raised in the bottom quintile do NOT stay there and 30% of them move to the top half of the economic distribution. That is amazing.

    I'm all in favor of our society (not necessarily our government) doing things to help out the socially/economically/culturally disadvantaged, but forcing everyone into preschool is does not seem to be consistent, to me, with the freedom we want in this country. When it may hurt outcomes and lessen the positive influence of healthy families, it seems even more contrary to what is desired.

    February 19, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  12. Abram

    I experienced the following when I taught in high-school; it is so true – depending on the location of course. "In the United States, many schools find themselves overstretched as they try to cope with the educational and behavioral problems of children that were severely disadvantaged from the outset."

    February 20, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • Nicholas Smith

      Your school should have initiated a good firearms training program for the kids. Teach them gun safety, and the fun of target practice and hunting techniques.

      February 20, 2013 at 3:23 am | Reply
  13. Tyrone

    WHITE ON WHITE CRIME NEVER DISCUSS NEVER REPORTED ON BECAUSE OF WHITE RACISM IN AMERICA!!!!!

    This is one area I am offended by President Obama. I was single father that took very good care of my son....He Graduated first in his class and today is working and marry and a father of a son. A grandson I love to death..... My mother has two brothers both have been marry over 50 years and are wonderful black fathers. My mother father worked 40 years at General Motor and 25 years at Reedman Motor......Marry 55 years to my beautiful grandmother ...to her death!.....There are great black fathers and I am one! During the 2008 election for President ,,,,Senator Obama address and demonize black fathers....Senator John McCain said NOTHING to white fathers.....The number of white deadbeat fathers are greater then of American fathers.

    Also white women between the age of 13 to 35 have the highest numbers of abortion in America. 60% of white baby are born to white single mothers. 65 % of American receiving welfare are white! America has a problem...NOT JUST THE BLACK RACES!!!!!!!!!
    White on white crime is destroying the very fabric of our nation and producing an entire class of white career criminals. While the media is quick to report every little statistic and/or event relating to the black on black crime phenomenon, the words “white on white crime” are spoken with a frequency of slim to none, and slim disappeared when he was two months old, murdered by his depressed mother, wrapped in plastic, and buried in the backyard.
    Day in and day out we see the phenomenon of white crime in the news. A schizophrenic white mother kills her children because she thought that Jesus was talking to her through the can opener telling her she had to do it in order for them to make it to heaven. White kids arm themselves to the hilt with shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols in order to kill as many people as possible as part of their school project before they commit suicide. A couple of white guys who have spent a major portion of their lives in and out of jail are released and go to a posh neighborhood, murders a doctor’s wife and their two daughters and then sets the home on fire. A man holes himself up in a church one Sunday morning and starts trying to take out people who come to worship before being taken out by snipers. A white woman breaks into a home of the couple that adopts the baby that she surrendered to Child Protective Services. A wrestler murders his family before committing suicide himself. White people are too absorbed playing video games to feed their children. A white woman leaves her baby to die in the car left if the sun with the windows rolled tight because she wanted to get her hair done. White pedophiles attack little white children. White teachers have affairs with their ten year old students. Catholic ministers are assaulting their young parishioners. A white man commits treason and outs an American spy in order to score political points. All of these are instances of the always overlooked phenomenon of white on white crime.
    Day after day our news bombards us with instances of crimes that receive local and national attention. Because white people in America are the dominating race rarely is the word white or European made in reference to a Caucasian that is the subject of a story. The anonymity of being the default keeps the fact that the phenomenon of white people committing crime as little more than a perchance event. Little stigma about their community as a whole is based on their individual actions. White people are given the benefit of the doubt that they are of good character and their integrity is above reproach unless or until proven otherwise. For many white people, even when they are proven to be of less than honorable character, people are still reluctant to perceive the criminal as a criminal. However, when the subject of the story is African, Hispanic, or some other ethnicity, the leap to the status of criminal is one very quick, short hop.
    Indeed, many white people pay absolutely no attention to crime or other manifestations of less than decent behavior in their neighborhood until someone of another race arrives on the scene. Crime is a natural characteristic of people of color. In fact, William Bennett, who was the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, the drug czar under George Bush Sr. and a staunch Republican conservative, used his radio show to make the suggestion that if people wanted to reduce crime they could abort every black baby in the United States. However, although it might be reprehensible to some people and totally impossible to pull off, if one was truly interested in reducing crime to an even lower level here in the United States, all one has to do is abort every white baby and exterminate every white man and woman. But to seriously make such a suggestion invites ridicule, hatred, and possibly invoke the ire of some latent white criminals.
    The white criminal mindset needs to quit hiding behind its generic veil of anonymity. If the various agencies that want to make sure people understand that people of color are committing crimes, then what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. White people need to be identified as contributors to the crime phenomenon at each and every time one of their clan makes their unfortunate choice. The term “white on white crime” needs to be bandied about at every applicable instance just as the term “black on black crime” is invoked in every applicable instance. Once we have the opportunity to be actively reminded of just how much the white on white crime happens in relation to its black on black crime counterpart, chances are we would see that black on black crime isn’t as out of hand as a lot of people would like to make it appear. Black on black crime is a problem and it needs to be confronted. But the fraud that black people are somehow more naturally prone to be criminals more so than good wholesome white people needs to be exposed for the racial propaganda it really is.

    February 20, 2013 at 5:25 am | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    I am not an American hence I have no in depth knowlede on the issue and moreover no right to interfere.
    So I will be takiing almost an eutopian approach to this issue. I love Ayn Rynd books, especially the "Atlas Shrugged". I have taken one principle from this book as a fundemental principle in my life: Whatever his/her capacity is, if a person fulfills his/her capacity, I respect him/her and take him/her as my equal. If he/she honestly aims to take action to fulfill his/her capacity I help him/her. If a person does not bother to do anything to improve himself and continues to live off other people, I disregard IT and leave it to be what it is.
    This approach brings up a working and productive foundation while eleminating any differences.
    However this may be only for personal use and can be extremely idealistic for nations.

    February 20, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Sorry if I can not express me'self or respond as quickly. However I moved out from İstanbul to the 6th largest city of Turkey. I just could not get my Istanbul telephone transferred to my recent address within this 20-25 day period although I went through the prosedures. Rural life in Turkey has its plusses and minuses and internet do not have the same speed with goat manure to make connections. But remembering that Romans did not last eternally since rural folkes could not come to the city center to vote and USA escaped breaking up just because railroad was founded...Well I hope you'll forget my speed in responding ;)

      February 20, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  15. Frank

    What, exactly, is so "innovative" about this? It's not just an obvious "solution," but it's been tried unsuccessfully for decades now; the Head Start program is simply the most recent abject failure in this vein. It's all based on a patently absurd premise that, somehow (magically, I suppose), all people are equally intelligent and have the same potential.

    February 22, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply
  16. lol

    No one likes to mention this but...Europe: majority white. USA: majority white but not at the 90%+ range. Listen, this is not a racist thing, but only a blind man/woman would not notice how there is a strong lack of educational drive in the African American and Hispanic communities, it is percieved to be white. Also, the Euro countries are majority one nationality, in the USA we have lots of variety, which means different factors. Howerver, point still stand, Europe > USA

    February 22, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  17. Beefburger

    Of course we should start out everyone as young as possible on welfare programs, so that the masses will be happy to be wards of the state. Any anxiety that you feel about this arrangement may be caused by the disadvantage of a behavioral problem. Try this new medication called Soma.

    February 24, 2013 at 1:25 am | Reply
  18. Beefburger

    It isn't about the parents' education level, it isn't about how much money you throw into program after failed program. It is about FAMILY involvement. My wife's family in the Philippines where there are NO programs and families have to pay for each class and each test in a school that may be not much more than a few boards for walls and a sheet metal roof in some places. Yet they have a higher education rate than "first world" USA. Why?

    February 24, 2013 at 2:58 am | Reply
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    April 25, 2013 at 2:02 am | Reply
  20. Lesley Beth

    Fareed, I love your article – as indeed I love your appearances on Jon Stewart but the reality is preKs are going backwards in the US. Last year saw the biggest drop in PreK funding for a decade. Significant cuts to preschools leading to choice of complete closures, reduced hours, parent payments, etc. 21 states have implemented deep cuts in pre-kindergarten and/or K–12 spending, In Texas, 100,000 mostly at-risk children—more than 40% of the state's pre-K students cut from PreK. 50% of Illinois schools forecasted to close their pre-Ks. For many parents private preks are just unaffordable.

    We hope within weeks to announce the launch of the world's largest Virtual PreK operation – offering high quality learning as well as helping migrant children be English ready. We have all the courses ready as well as the methodology and the platform. We will need retirees to help us – especially music teachers – but also parents working co-operatively.
    If you are paying $50-$100 a day now for private preK, think more like a $1.00 a day or less!
    Lesley Beth

    June 22, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Reply
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