If you were to plot brain growth in humans against America’s public investment in young people by age, (as we demonstrate below) you would see a curious shape: The two lines are nearly mirrored images.
In other words, the more public investment can make a difference in a child’s future, the less we invest in them. When the brain is growing at an astonishing rate – the years before kindergarten – public expenditure is a trickle. The spigot opens when children attend school. By the time their cognitive development is essentially complete – their college years – we pour billions into their education.
It doesn’t just make no sense; it is exactly backward.
Supporting development when children are 0-6 years of age, and 90% of brain growth occurs, delivers the highest return on investment. Research from various sources estimates that for every $1 spent on early childhood programs, $7-$9 is saved on addressing later-age pathologies and collected in taxes on larger earnings.
Experts in the field say the 2,000 days (roughly five years) before kindergarten are critical to brain development. During the first three years, young children develop the neural wiring required to think, understand, communicate, form attachments and learn. Once the window on those neural pathways closes – about age 6 – it can never be re-opened.
We literally learn how to learn in our first five years.
Those first five years is the time when children are almost entirely in the care of their parents or a caregiver. In low-income households, these are often low-literacy, low-information, one-parent environments in which the child’s appetite for learning is left to wither. Children in these situations are then sent to school at age five or six ill-equipped to learn.
Of course, poor children don’t simply need to learn alongside their more fortunate peers in kindergarten; they need to catch up. Studies have shown that children in poor households hear 30 million fewer words by age four than their middle-class counterparts. Consequently, they enter school with half the vocabulary, on average.
The cure: high-quality Pre-K
The antidote, study after study has shown, is high-quality early childhood education. Such programs provide trained professional staff wielding strategies for children to learn by play. “We need access to children earlier, starting at two-to-three years old,” says Bob Perkins, associate professor and department chair for teacher education at College of Charleston.
High-quality programs boast small student-teacher ratios are rich in storytelling, reading, learning by doing and even hugging. They are safe places where children’s little brains soak up knowledge and social-emotional skills.
Highly-qualified teachers play an oversize role in the success of children in these programs. Research, including a longitudinal study in Georgia, has confirmed that high-quality teaching in Pre-K programs reduces the achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers.
New York State describes high-quality teachers as possessing these core competencies:
- Child Growth and Development
- Family and Community Relationships
- Observation and Assessment
- Environment and Curriculum
- Health, Safety, and Nutrition
- Professionalism and Leadership
- Administration and Management
South Carolina Lags
There are few legal requirements for child care in South Carolina and the student-teacher ratios for early development programs lag the rest of the country. For example, Child Care Aware, a national child care resource, recommends as many as two times the number of teachers in a classroom as required in South Carolina. Many states have set the stricter standards as minimums for child care programs.
Many states provide a rating system for early childhood programs to help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children. A system was proposed for South Carolina about a decade ago but child care facility owners lobbied against the bill and defeated its passage.