Investments in Young Children Last a Lifetime
The following post is from Cindy Heine, the Associate Executive Director (retiring), from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
After years of working on behalf of better schools, I have a ready answer when people ask my opinion about the most important thing we can do to improve education outcomes: invest in quality early childhood programs.
Pre-birth through kindergarten is the most critical time for children to develop socially and emotionally and to establish learning patterns for school and work. As our committee's first chairman and namesake Edward Prichard pointed out in the early 1980s, addressing achievement gaps must begin "....not in the high school, not in the middle school, not even in the first three grades. It has got to begin in the preschools and the kindergartens and in the womb (with) ... things such as prenatal care, child nutrition, emphasis on the learning process in the home. ..." He understood then what research clearly shows now - that early investments are critical to improve students' chances for a strong education.
Our 1980s study of elementary/secondary education included reviews of early research reports showing that impoverished children who attended the high-quality Perry Preschool were more likely to complete high school and continue with postsecondary education, more likely to be employed and less likely be arrested. We also observed that it was the children "in the middle" who were missing out. Those from the poorest families were served by Head Start, and those from affluent families were enrolled in programs their parents could afford. So a key recommendation in our report, "The Path to a Larger Life," was preschool for all children ages three and four whose parents wanted it.
Forty years later, researchers continue to follow the Perry Preschool students with long-term results showing higher earnings, greater likelihood of home ownership and having a savings account and lower incidence of crime. Other studies, including the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina and the Chicago Parent Child project, all show similar long-term results for children who attend quality programs, with a return on investment averaging about $7 for each $1 spent.
I am often asked about a Head Start study that showed test scores of third graders who did not attend Head Start to be essentially the same as those of children who did. The implication is that Head Start didn't make a difference. Long-term results, however, show children in the program are less likely to need special education services, less likely to repeat grades and more likely to graduate from high school.
What this implies, as Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago Professor James Heckman points out, is that these programs make a difference in such executive skills as perseverance, motivation, attention, self-confidence and getting along with peers. We often forget that skilled teachers help children solve their own disputes on the playground, guide them to complete projects and help them gain self-confidence by solving their own problems. These are skills needed in classrooms and the workplace. Established early, they last a lifetime.
Health care professionals - in addition to economists - are also focused on children in their earliest years. Research shows stronger outcomes when mothers have good prenatal care and deliver babies at term. Brain development in the last two to three weeks of pregnancy and in the first few years of life is critical in establishing the foundation for learning and socio-emotional development. New research on ' toxic stress' in children shows the more stressful events (homelessness, hunger, serious illness, death in the family, family violence, adult substance abuse or mental illness, for example) children experience without the support of caring families, the worse the long-term health, social and economic outcomes.
All children deserve to be in quality environments, whether at home, in child-care settings or in preschool. They need adults who care about them, talk with them, read to them, help them deal with stressful events and provide them with a secure, loving and nurturing environment. We need a system of care that assures quality prenatal care for all women, supportive programs like Kentucky's Health Access Nurturing and Development ( HANDS) home visiting program for vulnerable families, quality child care for all children, quality preschool for all children whose families want it and support and information for parents in these early years.
Kentucky is moving to coordinate and provide these supports through the Governor's Office of Early Childhood and with the Race to the Top Early Childhood grant, but it will take a focus on quality and an investment of resources. We know through research that giving all of our children the strongest possible start is not only the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.