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The 5 most important things I've learned about early childhood education

Dustin Dwyer

Yesterday, we aired an hour-long special on State of Opportunity about the importance of early childhood education. If you missed it, you can hear the full audio here. You can also download the audio on iTunes. Just search for the State of Opportunity podcast. 

This report is the result of months of work, and thousands of hours of research by Jennifer Guerra, Sarah Alvarez and me. We interviewed neuroscientists and psychologists for the latest findings on how children's brains develop. We talked to economists and policymakers about the financial payoff for investing in children before they go to kindergarten. We packed a lot of information in our special, and I hope it helps give you a sense of why preschool is so important for disadvantaged kids.

But, knowing that life is busy and your time is limited, I also wanted to share some of my main takeaways. So, after months and months of reporting on early childhood education, here are the five most important things I've learned: 

  1. Experiences in early childhood literally shape the structure of our brain. In a general sense, every brain forms the same way. Children are born with certain reflexes, they can breathe and suck and cry, and not much else. Other abilities show up on a predictable schedule: crawling, talking, walking. The "when" of things is pretty much standard. But the "how" and "how much" can depend hugely on a child's experience. When babies are exposed to more language, they'll have better vocabularies as 4 year olds. And the difference is not an ephemeral, mysterious thing. It comes about because of physical changes in individual neurons and synapses. Those physical changes can last a lifetime, and it all depends on what happens in early childhood. 
  2. Poverty can have a profound and measurable impact on brain development. One of the neuroscientists I interviewed for our project is Martha Farah, at the University of Pennsylvania. Farah and her colleagues have studied brain scans, and done behavioral tests to determine how growing up in poverty can affect specific brain functions. Farah says the functions that are most susceptible to childhood poverty are language, memory and "executive functions" (which relate to a child's ability to regulate emotion and attention). All three of these brain functions are essential for success in school and life, and all three are damaged by growing up in poverty. 
  3. We have a long history of programs to help educate the youngest and most disadvantaged children. University of Michigan history professor Maris Vinovskis told me about the "infant school" movement, which began in England during the Industrial Revolution, and quickly spread to the U.S. Infant schools were created as a way to educate children whose parents went to work in the new factories. This is where the idea of preschool was born, and it was always intended as a way to help the most disadvantaged kids. It was assumed that parents with more resources could teach their children at home. But as the idea of infant school spread, even these parents wanted to send their children to infant schools. By 1840, 40 percent of 3 year olds in Massachusetts were in school, according to Vinovskis. The number is not much different today. The difference is that today, most 3 year olds are in private preschool, which means their parents have the ability to pay. Three year olds in poverty have less opportunity. 
  4. Good preschool costs money. Different people have different definitions of what constitutes a "good" preschool. One criteria most people agree on: good preschools are the ones with highly trained teachers. More and more, both public and private preschools are looking to get teachers with bachelor's degrees. But attracting these highly trained teachers costs money. That's why good private preschools charge thousands of dollars a year in tuition. For children in poverty, someone else is picking up the cost. That someone else is taxpayers. 
  5. Good preschool is an economic development tool. Why should your taxes pay for someone else's kid to go to preschool? Because the investment pays off. How much it pays off depends on who you ask. Tim Bartik at the UpJohn Institute has one one of the more conservative estimates I've seen (and a great blog that's worth following). He analyzed the benefits of preschool based solely on how much it would raise per-capita earnings for state residents. Higher earnings is one of the well-established long-term benefits of preschool. Others have shown that preschool can also lower costs for K-12 schools by decreasing the number of kids who need remedial education, and it can lower prison costs, because kids who go to preschool are less likely to commit crimes. But Bartik didn't even consider those costs savings. He also subtracted any economic benefits from kids who move out of state as adults. His result? Even on this conservative measure, every dollar a state spends on preschool creates about three dollars in economic benefit. 
Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.