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This conclusion is based on data from 34 rich countries, many of which outperform the U.S. in educational achievement and--now--economic mobility. In many of these countries, 90% of 3-year-olds get early-childhood education. The OECD average for 4-year-olds is 81%. In the U.S., it is only 69%, and those children tend to be from middle- and upper-middle-class families.
European countries provide universal (or almost universal) general education and day-care programs that focus on whole-child learning, unlike American ones, which are often more limited and target only the poor. The U.S.--the government and private sector combined--also spends much less on early-childhood education as a percentage of GDP, ranking 24th of the 34 countries surveyed by the OECD, and has a higher-than-average student-to-teacher ratio. Additionally, America's poor children suffer more than Europe's from malnutrition, which has an effect on the ability to learn.
American government, working locally for the most part, set the pace for education in the past 150 years. By the second half of the 19th century, mass elementary education was the norm across the nation. It would take other industrializing countries three to four decades to catch up, write scholars Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their book The Race Between Education and Technology. "Human capital became supreme in the 20th century and America led the way."
That lead is now gone. Head Start should be reformed to ensure its effectiveness. But Obama's proposals will help the U.S. start to catch up in the great human-capital struggle that will define the new century even more dramatically than it did the last.
TO READ MORE BY FAREED ZAKARIA, GO TO time.com/zakaria
The original version of this article said the paper by scholars from the University of Chicago and University of California, Davis was published in September 2011. While released as a working paper in 2011, the version referenced in the column was presented in June 2012