Brain research in the last dozen years underscores that the time of life that may shape adult outcomes the most is pregnancy through age 2 or 3.
James Heckman, a Nobel-winning economist at the University of Chicago believes that “the greatest barrier to college education is not high tuitions or the risk of student debt; it’s in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten.”
He calculates that early-education programs for needy kids pay for themselves several times over because less money is spent later on juvenile courts, prisons, health care and welfare.
What’s needed is not just education but also help for families beginning in pregnancy, to reduce the risk that children will be born with addictions and to increase the prospect that they will be raised with lots of play and conversation.
The best metric of child poverty may not be income but with how often a child is spoken and read to. By age 4, a child of professionals has heard 30 million more words than a child on welfare.
A book from the Russell Sage Foundation, “Too Many Children Left Behind,” notes that 60 to 70 percent of the achievement gap between rich and poor kids is already evident by kindergarten. The book recommends investing in early childhood, for that’s when programs often have the most impact.
While the cognitive gains from preschool seem to fade by the third grade, there are differences in life outcomes that persist. Many years later, these former pre-K students are less likely to be arrested, to drop out of high school, to be on welfare and to be jobless.
A wave of recent research in neuroscience explains why early childhood is so critical: That’s when the brain is developing most quickly. Children growing up in poverty face high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impairs brain circuits responsible for impulse control, working memory, emotional regulation, error processing and healthy metabolic functioning.
“It is in the first 1,000 days of life that the stage is set for fulfilling individual potential,” writes Roger Thurow in his new book on leveraging early childhood, “The First 1,000 Days.”
So the research is clear how much birth, an ovarian lottery according to Warren Buffett, determines a person’s life outcomes. A struggling 18-year old high-school dropout or a 45-year old homeless person may have had their fate sealed at birth.
I understand the importance of taking personal responsibility for your own life, but we also have responsibility to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot at having such an opportunity for taking control of their life. For many, that opportunity is severely reduced by the age of 5.
So I applaud the City of Philadelphia for its decision to make universal pre-k a top priority. I hope it is a wild success and becomes a model for the rest of the nation as a way to reduce the potential negative lifetime consequences associated with the simple act of birth.
I’ve always said that my wife’s job as a pre-k teacher is 10 times more important than my job as a college teacher; it looks like I may have been off by a factor of at least 10…