22 February 2010

Improving the prospects for America's future through early childhood investment

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Puebla, Mexico on initial and basic education for indigenous and rural children. Puebla is a beautiful and thriving city; and I look forward to returning soon, with my family in tow.

Additionally, the conference was an eye-opening experience in terms of public investment in early childhood development. Early childhood (particularly the period between 0 and 3) is the period of most rapid brain development, and it is the period in which targeted public investments generate the greatest financial and social returns.

While we in the United States tend to think about education as starting at kindergarten or first grade, the Mexican state of Puebla is pushing to begin their educational process much earlier. They envision a universal system of center-based education for children between the ages of 3 and 7 (the period of basic education). Meanwhile, they are developing a curriculum for initial education between a child’s birth and age 3.

The OAS conference drew speakers from Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, the United States, and Canada, and it was striking to see the common ground shared across each of these national contexts. First, there was a keen sense of the challenges confronting the entire hemisphere. Futurists tell us that the kindergartners entering school next fall will emerge from the educational system in a dozen years or so into a world far different from the present; they will apply for jobs that don’t yet exist; and will be expected to master technologies that have yet to be invented.

Moreover, the odds of maintaining a competitive position in the workforce of the future are daunting, given worldwide population trends. To see this, we need only compare the number of children in North America with the number in India in China. There are roughly ten times as many Indian and Chinese children as there are North American children. (In other words, there are as many third graders in the top ten percent of the class in India and China as there are third graders in all classrooms in the U.S. and Canada combined; and the same is true for every grade).

How then do we best prepare our children for the world they will inherit? Here, again, the presenters in Puebla shared a similar message: The seeds of academic and life-long success are sown long before children reach school. Rightly, we lament the achievement gap that emerges between ethnic and racial groups, and between children of the poor and children of the middle-class, with lasting implications for individuals, families, and communities. But much of this achievement gap has its origin in early childhood development. In other words, to a large degree, a child’s success in school is a product of their early childhood experiences and early brain development – all of which takes place long before children enter kindergarten.

The scholars at the OAS conference were quick to highlight the good news in this story: First, a half century of careful research on early childhood brain development helps us to understand how to improve the developmental well-being of children. Second, these early years present an extraordinary opportunity to shape the future not only of children – but also of societies. This is because there is tremendous plasticity in the developing brain.

Third, the research is equally clear that – as a cohort, children who experience strong and nurturing early childhoods are likely to do better over the long term, both in school and in other facets of life.

And here is the best news of all: by maximizing the likelihood that young children will develop to their full capacity, societies have the greatest chance of shaping their own futures in the face of growing uncertainty.

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