Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Op-ed: The Academic Medal Count
High-quality pre-k should be available to all children in Pennsylvania
September 9, 2016

As the Rio Olympics fades into memory, let’s take a last look back and consider how America’s elite athletes once again won the medal count, extending our country’s all-time lead to more than 2,500 Olympic medals.

This victory was not solely theirs; Olympic athletes take the field backed by parents, coaches and our entire nation cheering them on. Years of training pay off when they climb the podium to claim their medals.

But increasingly, we athletes worry that the United States is winning the Olympic medal count but losing the academic medal count. In Rio, America’s 121 medals vastly outpaced second-place China. However, our children’s 2012 international academic scores ranked 35th in math and 27th in science.

Imagine all the squandered talent behind those academic markers. In athletic terms, it’s as if Kyle Snyder had never taken to the mat, or Simone Biles had never chalked her hands for the balance beam.

Champions for America’s Future, a nationwide network of top athletes and coaches helping kids succeed in life, believes it’s time for America to take the academic podium. Elite athletes start training young. Quality early-childhood education gives our children the same edge, making sure they reach the starting line known as kindergarten with the pre-math, pre-reading and social/emotional skills needed to reach their full potential.

We’ve all heard about the “achievement gap” of lower-income high school students whose academic scores trail their higher-income peers. It’s not as if those students were on par and then ran out of gas, like a leading runner suddenly faltering near the finish line. At least 60 percent of the achievement gap in reading and math is already present at kindergarten. Often, disadvantaged children start kindergarten knowing only one-fourth the words known by the children of professional parents.

For these kids, the race may be over before it starts. As champion Olympics and NCAA basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski puts it, “These children might be scrambling to catch up for the rest of their education – and possibly for the rest of their lives.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve seen high-quality pre-kindergarten turn disadvantaged children into champions:

• By the fourth and fifth grades, disadvantaged New Jersey children served by a preschool program were three-fourths of a year ahead in math and two-thirds of a year ahead in literacy. They were also much less likely to be held back in school.

• In North Carolina, the More at Four program improved third-grade reading and math scores by the equivalent of several months of extra instruction. It also led to 10 percent fewer special-education placements.

• By age 20, students from Chicago Child-Parent Centers preschool improved their graduation rates by 29 percent. Sadly, children not served by the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

Unfortunately, here in Pennsylvania access to quality pre-kindergarten is limited. Among the 170,000 Pennsylvania 3- and 4-year-olds living in lower-income households, and therefore at greatest risk of academic failure, nearly 70 percent lack access to quality publicly funded early-childhood programs each year. This represents missed opportunities for 120,000 young children annually.

The years of training that result in an Olympic victory come with a cost, and so does greater access to high quality pre-kindergarten. When it comes to quality early learning, however, the investment actually saves money. A respected cost-benefit analysis of more than 20 different studies showed net benefits to society of $30,000 saved for each child served in pre-kindergarten.

Athletes know that every medal we earn represents a team effort, even when we enter the mat, pool, court or track all alone. Our youngest children deserve the same team effort guiding them toward success on and off the field.

For our children to be successful, our government leaders must write a game plan that expands quality pre-K to these 120,000 young children to help them achieve their potential. Then we can lead our commonwealth and nation to the top of the world’s academic podium.

Bruce Baumgartner, a four-time Olympic wrestling medalist, is director of athletics at Edinboro University and president of USA Wrestling.

Read the full op-ed here.