India invests in early education, and we should emulate its commitment

In New Delhi, David Lawrence Jr., right, observes the activity in an early learning classroom with Venita Kaul, left, and teacher Saba Parveen.
In New Delhi, David Lawrence Jr., right, observes the activity in an early learning classroom with Venita Kaul, left, and teacher Saba Parveen. David Lawrence Jr.

NEW DELHI — India makes my point. So do Bangladesh and China and Turkey and Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malaysia.

All have investment in early learning as part of the national agenda. (In recent years I have visited early learning centers in each of these countries. )

While we in these United States are especially blessed to partake of a rich and generous country and to live in full freedom, in some places and in some ways we are not as future-focused as we might think.

The leaders of these other countries know — sometimes better than we do — that their very future depends on investment in early education. They understand that emphasis must begin before birth, concentrating especially on the first several years (85 percent of brain growth occurring by age 3). In my own country, we have too many leaders, elected and otherwise, who don’t “get it” (though to be fair, President Obama does).

I am in the capital of India, a land of stunning contrasts and many civilizations whose heritage goes back thousands of years. A country that will be the world’s largest in population in the next half-dozen years — and that already has four times more people than the United States. A country with pockets of great wealth, a growing middle class and a mountain of impoverished misery. I could find so many reasons to be pessimistic about India’s future, but instead come away more optimistic than when I arrived.

My visit is to the slums of Delhi, where I am seeing two early childhood centers — one a demonstration school for children (mostly Muslim) from almost age 3 to age 6, the other close by in a much tougher setting, but benefiting from its collaboration with the former. My “instructor” is Dr. Venita Kaul of Ambedkar University. She is among this nation’s leading figures in high-quality early development, care and education. She knows: Start early. Build a movement for everyone’s child. Know that only real quality leads to positive outcomes. Give a child momentum in the early years, and it will propel a lifetime of success.

I do not minimize the challenges of India: Its burgeoning population. The caste system. Its polluted air. The fact that almost a third of the world’s poor are in this one country. A frequently unsafe water supply. A low standing in international education standards. Progress, too — but nonetheless a plethora of problems by any measure of infant and maternal health. Yet …

What I hear from Dr. Kaul and what I see for myself give me honorable hope:

▪ A huge emphasis on every child in rural India getting a quality early learning experience — for free.

▪ A growing understanding that nothing is more key to a child’s future than a loving, caring, nurturing and knowledgeable mother. There is a real emphasis on getting parents the sort of information that would make them their child’s best teacher.

▪ People from the community being trained and used as teachers in the early learning centers.

▪ A full awareness that “deficits resulting from a deficient environment in these early years may be very difficult to reverse later.”

▪ The understanding that outcomes for health, nutrition and education are inter-dependent.

India is a long way from the promised land of high-quality basics for every child. Then again, so are we.

“I see real progress,” says Dr. Kaul. “But we aren’t close at all to where we need to be. The future of India depends on this.” So, too, does the future of the United States.

David Lawrence Jr., retired publisher of the Miami Herald, chairs The Children’s Movement of Florida.