This month, the test scores of Chinese students sent another shock wave through a zeitgeist already obsessed with national decline: Are they getting ahead of us in everything? Will China rule the world in 30 years? Is the United States destined to a future of limited horizons and lowered expectations?

On a widely respected standardized test administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, students from Shanghai and Hong Kong ranked at or near the top in reading, math, and science. American students came in 23d and 24th in most subjects. "We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the New York Times.

That was another blow to a nation already struggling with the aftermath of the Great Recession. Our confidence is shattered, our faith in the future diminished.

But there is also good news hidden behind the gloomy headlines: We know what it takes to regain our economic hegemony and reinvigorate the American dream. And it's all about education - specifically, early-childhood education.

Over several decades, child-development experts have come to understand the importance of the years from birth to age 3 - even earlier than such programs as Head Start usually begin. The first three years are when a child's brain can develop radically, mapping connections to the larger world. The intellectual and social skills a child develops in those years influence the rest of his life, preparing him not just for elementary and secondary school, but also for college and a career.

So why not spend serious money on excellent nursery school and prekindergarten classes? Why not pay the best early-childhood teachers excellent salaries? Why not ensure that every 3-year-old in the country has the opportunity to study a foreign language, learn to read, and get early arithmetic skills?

I know, I know: I want to throw money at the problem. For some reason, the notion of spending more money to raise educational attainment sounds naive. Those who'd doubt such a costly new initiative would probably point to those that have failed in the not-so-distant past. And that sense of failure fatigue is compounded by a laissez-faire attitude toward younger children, who are not subject to compulsory school-attendance laws. There's still a sense that young children are entirely the responsibility of their parents, who know - or ought to know - how best to care for them.

I'm not arguing for tearing infants from their mothers' arms. But if we update our thinking a bit, we'd recognize how much the world has changed: Most young children are no longer cared for by stay-at-home moms. According to federal statistics, 56 percent of mothers with children under the age of 1 are in the labor force.

Indeed, many children are cared for in day-care centers that vary widely in quality. Some attempt enrichment activities with their young charges, while many just feed them and change their diapers. I suspect parents would be grateful for a reasonably priced alternative, subsidized by federal and state funds, that offered excellent teachers and age-appropriate lessons.

Would providing high-quality early-childhood education be costly? Yes, it would. So were the science and math programs that President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress set in motion after the Soviets launched Sputnik. But those programs helped to lay the foundation for a generation of American research, engineering, and entrepreneurship. I don't think anyone would argue our post-Sputnik endeavors weren't worth the price tag.

President Obama has a historic opportunity to unite the nation on a mission for long-term economic revival. He ought to call for a post-Sputnik-like program to promote educational excellence, starting with the youngest children. Americans are ready for a call to action that doesn't sound like a somber lecture about lowered expectations.

Obama has talked a great deal about the importance of educational attainment. He's even taken on teachers' unions, a traditional Democratic constituency, in an effort to shake up poorly performing schools. But he hasn't given us a soaring vision that ties educational achievement to national destiny. He should.

Cynthia Tucker is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail her at cynthia@ajc.com.