At a time when we are looking to reverse the economic recession, new research quantifies just how much the achievement gap costs our economy and informs us about ways to close it.

As chairman of California Business for Education Excellence, I know there is no more important issue facing our state than raising student academic achievement in our public schools. It is so closely linked to a strong and vibrant economy. We must close achievement gaps that persist for low-income, African-American and Latino children who comprise the majority of California's future work force.

The Rand Corp.'s California Preschool Study finds the achievement gap is evident as early as kindergarten entry, with many students coming to school without the basic social and early literacy skills they need to succeed. Rand also finds that the children who start out behind tend to stay behind. By third grade, almost two-thirds of students are not proficient in English-language arts, and 42 percent are not proficient in math.

The persistence of these educational achievement gaps "imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession," according to a new McKinsey & Co. study on the economic impact of the achievement gap in America's schools. If the gap between African-American and Latino performance and white student performance had been closed a decade ago, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been $310 billion to $525 billion higher, McKinsey estimates. Likewise, if the income achievement gap had been closed by 2008, GDP would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

McKinsey also found that in California, low-income African-American and Latino students are nearly four years of learning behind their nonpoor white peers based upon fourth grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). California's achievement gap contribution to the overall loss of GDP is three to five times larger than any other state and the California "systems gap" (the difference in academic performance between school systems, particularly those serving similar students) comprises 44 percent of the overall national impact on loss of GDP.

Complete education

As a former CEO, I managed a work force of nearly 7,800 employees and agents. And as chairman of the California Business Roundtable I have heard all too often from my peers that job candidates were not qualified because they did not receive a complete and competitive education. Not only did they lack important basic job readiness skills such as communication, responsibility and persistence in completing tasks skills developed as early as preschool they also lacked basic reading, writing and computational skills required in today's workplace.

New federal stimulus funding offers the opportunity to change that by investing in our future work force and helping working parents now. California stands to receive about $500 million of the $5 billion for early childhood education in the economic recovery package.

I was encouraged to see that the funding includes $2.1 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start. As past chair of the Los Angeles Urban League, I am proud of the role its Federal Head Start and State Preschool program plays in preparing minority children to learn by teaching them the skills they need to succeed in elementary school, and by involving parents in their children's development.

The Rand report's policy recommendations confirm that California is on the right track with its early childhood education reforms. The state is increasing accountability by developing an early learning quality rating and improvement system, which will evaluate the quality of early childhood programs and provide financial incentives to reach higher quality. This system will also provide early childhood programs with the ability to identify higher performing programs across the state and learn from their best practices.

California has made the most of today's resources by consolidating preschool programs and reducing bureaucracy. The state is also establishing systems to follow and assess children's progress from early education to high school graduation, so that we can continuously improve our efforts to get all students to grade level proficiency every year, and have them graduate ready for college and the workplace.

In this competitive global economy, the United States cannot afford to fall further behind. Policymakers must maximize federal funds now and increase investments in early childhood education in the future. We will all benefit from raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap.

Greg Jones is the retired senior vice president of State Farm Mutual Insurance Cos. and a member of the California State Board of Education. He is also chair of the California Business Roundtable, chair of California Business for Education Excellence and a director of Operation Hope Inc.

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