By Robin Britt, Executive Director, Guilford Child Development
With respect to investing in futures, stockbrokers usually talk about the return on investment (ROI) for a commodity. With respect to public investment in the futures of children in need, return on investment is also an appropriate way to frame the discussion.
The future of our public school system, the future of our workforce, our future economic vitality and, indeed, our national security are all at stake if we fail to invest in our young children.
First, let’s talk about the children. In America, the richest nation in the history of the world, 22% of all children live in poverty, and in North Carolina today, 26% of all children live in poverty. Nationwide, nearly 40% of minority children are in poverty. Likewise, for our youngest children, the rate is much higher than 26%, because the younger the parents, the greater the likelihood of poverty.
Gandhi said: “The measure of a society is how it treats is weakest members.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” By those measures, America and North Carolina are not doing well, and the futures of our children, school system, our workforce, and our national vitality are threatened.
Disadvantaged children entering Kindergarten are more likely to have health, emotional and toxic stress issues; poor vocabularies; developmental delays; behavioral challenges; and educational deficiencies. Hunger is no foreigner in low-income families – poor nutrition is rampant. It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach. All of these issues put stress on the children and on the school system. Even if you are the smartest kid in your class, if you jump on your neighbor, you won’t succeed in school. The cost to the classroom, the teachers, and the principal of ongoing anti-social behavior in our public schools is enormous. And we all know by now that if a child is not reading at grade level by the third grade, they are likely to drop out before completing high school.
What are the futures of our children who drop out of school? Juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, hard core unemployment, incarceration. Are these the futures we want for our children?
Even worse – research now shows toxic stress conditions like poverty, a highly depressed mother, and abuse and neglect, result in chronic health disorders later in life: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and early mortality. These chronic health disorders represent an enormous cost to society and our workforce.
What is unconscionable is that we know some preventive strategies that work for young children ages zero to five. Evidence-based programs exist that extensive research shows are successful. The Brookings Institution simulated what would happen if children from low-income families were afforded the same level and quality of school readiness preparation by age five as those of children from high-income families. Brookings indicated that well-educated and targeted investments can close the gap between more – and less advantaged children by over 70%, greatly improving the chances of disadvantaged children for social mobility and enhancing their lifetime income potential.
We also know that the outcome demanded by investors is inherent in these programs – return on investment. Quality programs directed to early learning and development return from 5% to 16% ROI according to the research. But only a small percentage of eligible children receive quality early childhood intervention, especially in the youngest years of life (ages zero to three), when brain development is at its peak. (Ninety percent of brain development occurs by age five.)
The discussion of futures, however, doesn’t end with the futures of the children and their families. As mentioned, the future of our public schools is also at stake. Nearly 60% of children enrolled in Guilford County Schools receive free and reduced lunch. Too often, disadvantaged children enter Kindergarten and can’t do what the other children do, not because they are less able, but because they are less prepared. These children become the anchors of their class, the discipline problems, and the pace of instruction is slowed. In earlier times, the United States led the industrial nations in education. We now rank 25th in math, 17th in Science, and 14th in reading. The futures of all of our children in public school are inextricably linked to the futures of our disadvantaged children. School readiness is a rising tide that lifts all ships.
If a high percentage of our children are not well educated, what is the future of America’s work force? Ben Bernanke, former head of the Federal Reserve, affirmed the return on investment in early childhood as it relates to our future workforce. In a speech delivered while he was in office, Bernanke stated:
“Please keep in mind that formal K-12 and post –secondary education, as important as they are, do not alone build better workforces. Research increasingly has shown the importance for both individuals and the economy as a whole of both early childhood education as well as efforts to promote the lifelong acquisition of skills. The payoffs of Early Childhood Programs can be especially high.”
If the future of America’s workforce is unsettling, what does that mean for the future of America’s economic development and competitive positioning in a highly competitive global market place? James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist is spending much of his time researching the return on investment of early learning and development. A research group he participated in had this to say about the future of economic development in America in the Proceedings of the International Academy of Science:
“The future of the U.S. economy…is in jeopardy because a growing fraction of the nation’s workforce will consist of adults who were raised in disadvantaged environments…Studies of human capital formation indicate that the quality of the early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity and that early enrichment for disadvantaged children increases the probability of later economic success.”
Even our national defense is at stake. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of our military stated in an editorial in USA Today:
“Sad but true: Most young adults in the U.S cannot qualify for military service…From a national security perspective, the situation is so serious that nearly 200 retired generals and admirals are calling on Congress to consider major educational reform, with a special emphasis on increased investments in high-quality early education…Why early education? Because research shows that these high-quality programs are the most cost-effective way to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in school and later in life.”
Better outcomes for children and their parents, better outcomes for our public schools, a more productive workforce, a stronger national defense, and a competitive economy represent the return on investment, the ROI, in early learning and development. What better investment could we possibly make?
- U.S. Census/clasp.org, September, 2013
- Brookings Institution, How Much Could We Improve Children’s Chances by Intervening Early and Often?; October, 2013