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A recent U.N. climate report highlighted how our dire climate crisis is “unequivocally” and “irreversibly” caused by humans. It’s long overdue that we acknowledge the harms we as humans are causing to the planet.

At the same time, we also need to act now to alleviate another urgent, global crisis, one the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, has reportedly called “the social equivalent of climate change.” This is the crisis facing early childhood.  

Like climate change, our underinvestment in early childhood is causing unequivocal and irreversible damage to precious resources: our human talent.  And I believe we will only reach future climate breakthroughs by improving conditions for our youngest members of society and unlocking the full potential of our collective brain and creative power.

Before the global pandemic, a majority (58 percent) of all young U.S. children between 3 and 5 were not on track to meet their learning milestones. We also know that those who start behind are more likely to stay behind.

This means that the majority of American children already face an uphill learning climb. While the full impact of the continuing pandemic is still being examined, massive disruptions in child care and preschool, along with the emotional stress endured by parents, children and educators are likely making this climb even steeper. Children born during the pandemic may even have reduced verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance relative to pre-pandemic.

Ninety percent of the brain develops before age 5, but only 6 percent of public education spending goes to the early years — and just 4 percent and 6 percent of education philanthropy and edtech investments. We are both underfunding this area — and under innovating.

In short, we have an urgent and largely unacknowledged education crisis that starts in the early years. As with the climate crisis, we can’t waste any time in addressing it.

And as with climate change, the crisis in early childhood doesn’t affect people equally. The gaps in the early years of life are more pronounced across income and race. Three in four children from moderate and high-income families are estimated to be kindergarten-ready, compared with less than half (48 percent) of children from low-income backgrounds.

At age one, white, Asian, Black and Hispanic children score virtually the same in “skill patterns.” But, by kindergarten, as measured before the pandemic, Black and Hispanic children are 9 to 10 months behind in math and 7 to 12 months behind in reading, compared with their white peers. During the pandemic, the overall share of children meeting reading benchmarks in kindergarten dropped from 47 percent to 28 percent across 41 states, while racial disparities were exacerbated.

Not investing in early childhood has consequences into the future. Nobel Prize economist James Heckman has shown, for example, that children attending high-quality early childhood programs benefit well into their adult years.

In 2019, Heckman updated his analysis to add significant intergenerational benefits for children of parents who initially participated in high-quality preschool. In 2021, he further updated his work for the “dynastic benefits of early childhood.”

If we continue to overlook the importance of the early years, we are leaving not one, but multiple generations, behind.

The IPCC report on climate change still offers us cautious glimpses of hope. Unprecedented global collaboration and drastic shifts in our individual, economic and societal activities could help mitigate some of the worst consequences of climate change. We know many of the steps we can take to lessen its harms, but we must find the will to act.

Similarly, we know what high-quality early childhood education looks like, and how it could raise those future little scientists and compassionate leaders of tomorrow. We have many successful models.

It starts at home, with adequate family supports for parents to thrive. Children need stable, safe, nurturing and loving relationships to buffer toxic stress.  Employers must commit to support working parents and the wellbeing of families. We need public investments in affordable and high-quality early care and education environments, and a well-compensated, supported and valued educator workforce. Private innovations — especially targeted at quality early learning for those children and families who need it the most — also have a major role to play. All of this requires a massive shift from old industrial models toward future-minded investments.

Education and industrial economies must modernize and tackle both the early learning and climate crises. Advances in neuroscience tell us the early years are deeply formative. Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence are skills that are in high demand from employers, parents and society. The optimal period of brain development for developing those skills is in the early years.

Yet, we continue to massively underinvest in the early years. Ninety percent of the brain develops before age 5, but only 6 percent of public education spending goes to the early years — and just 4 percent and 6 percent of education philanthropy and edtech investments. We are both underfunding this area — and under innovating.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was spot on when she made this powerful statement about climate change at Davos in 2019: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

The same needs to be said about early learning. The best time to act was yesterday. The next best one is today.

Over the past two decades, Isabelle C. Hau has innovated at the intersection of philanthropy, impact investing, and education, to make high quality learning accessible and joyful for all children starting at birth. She was a former partner at Imaginable Futures, the education venture of The Omidyar Group. She is currently writing a book on the future of learning. You can follow her on Small Talks.

This story about the climate crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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