by Sharon Kayne
September 22, 2015

Imagine that our modern American society just recently sprang into being. Much like our current society, this new nation is made up of hard-working people who pride themselves on their ingenuity and forward thinking. As a brand-new country, we need to build a public education system from scratch. Imagine that we have no previous models on which to pattern this system so we must base it on our shared values, current needs and future vision.

Let’s assume that our shared value is that because society fares better when everyone receives an education, it’s right to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to get a good one. Let’s assume our future vision is of a society where education allows everyone to reach their unique potential so they can contribute to society. As for our current needs, we’ll assume that: more and more jobs require a college education; in most families all available parents are in the workforce; 80 percent of a person’s brain development takes place within the first five years of their life; and adverse experiences like homelessness, hunger, parental alcohol or drug abuse, untreated mental illness, and physical and mental abuse, mar that critical brain development and detract from a child’s ability to learn.

Given our shared vision for the future, we would want our educational system to prepare as many children for college as possible. We would create a school calendar that engaged children year round. We might even consider having each child advance to new curriculum at his or her own pace. We would keep classroom sizes small to ensure that children received adequate attention and to keep the time spent disciplining to a minimum.

Since most parents work, we would likely consider having the school day last as long as the average work day. This would ensure that children have plenty of time to explore enriching subjects like the arts, culture, athletics, languages, and the environment, so that we’re educating the whole child.

Since education is important to our society, we’ll be paying for it with money from the public kitty that we all contribute to. We’ll want to get the best return on our investment, so we’ll make sure that children are prepared for success when they enter school. That means starting early in life.

Because we know that learning begins at birth and that the brain development taking place in the first five years of life is critical to success in school—and that working parents aren’t available during the long work day to ensure that their children are experiencing the kind of nurturing stimulus that drives brain development—we would probably create a continuum of care and education that starts early and complements the various stages of child development. We would ensure that all families understand their child’s developmental stages and are involved in their education whether it takes place at a center while the parents are at work or entirely within the home. And we’d ensure that families have access to the support systems that help them overcome the adversities that put healthy child development and learning at risk. Since educating our children is so important, we’d also make sure that those who do it are as well compensated as they are well-educated.

Sadly, we’re not in a position to build our public education system from scratch, and the one we have is predicated on numerous factors that are no longer true: when our system was created our economy was heavily based on agriculture, as well as manufacturing jobs that required relatively low skill levels; child labor was needed on the farm during the late summer to help bring in the crops; mothers did not work outside the home; and not only did we not understand the importance of brain development in the first five years of life, many children did not survive past the age of five, so investing in early education did not make sense. Prior to World War I, most Americans did not pursue education beyond the eighth grade, so college preparation was unnecessary for most students. Unless you planned to study for one of the few professions, such as medicine or the law, there was no need to attend high school even. You learned how to make a living on the family farm or business or through an apprenticeship in the trades.

We have adapted our old educational system to meet some of our modern needs. Many schools have adopted trimesters or other alternative schedules to minimize the amount of time children have off in the summer, but most schools still adjourn for the summer, during which time children without summer learning opportunities are especially likely to fall behind. After-school programs are neither available in all districts and schools, nor always free of charge. Child care is ubiquitous but quality levels vary wildly and even low-quality care is unaffordable for low-income working parents without financial assistance. Pre-K is on the rise, but most programs are only a half day and without wraparound services many working parents cannot take advantage of them. We are simply not ensuring that every child comes to school ready to learn. Nor are we investing enough resources to elevate those children who start behind.

One aspect of our imagined built-from-scratch education system that is true of our actual one is that we do invest a great deal of public money into it and we expect a good return on that investment. We’d certainly get a better return if we reshaped our old system to fit more of our modern needs. Since we all benefit from our public school system, we all have a stake in seeing it improved. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to let our lawmakers know what changes we would like to see.

Sharon Kayne is NMVC’s Communications Director.