The ABC's of Early Ed: Experts Believe Reducing Funds for Early Childhood Education Is Suicide

Article excerpt

Use it or lose it. It's a cute saying, but it is particularly fitting for the brain--especially in small, developing brains. "During the first three years of life, there's an overabundance of activity in the brain," says Kenneth A. Wesson, education consultant at Neuroscience in San Jose. "If brain cells don't find a job, they will be eliminated. There is no welfare in the brain. These brain cells seek a job to do. They go dormant or are eliminated if kids don't have specific kinds of experiences and nothing to build on."

Brain cells support specific functions. So if a child is capable of learning how to read but has no chance to process sounds or language, he or she will never be able to learn how to "language" like normal people, Wesson says. "It's critically important that kids have as many different kinds of rich experiences and get to talk about those experiences during the early years," Wesson adds. "And that's the hallmark of early childhood education programs."

Children in high-quality, early childhood education score better later on in cognitive, reading, and math tests, are more ambitious in work, and more healthy in general. But federal and state governments, amid tight cash flow, are holding back or reducing funds for early education. Education suicide? In so many words, experts think so.

"I think our data strongly suggest that it would be a mistake if you're looking for some place to save money ... early childhood education is not a good place to start," says Frances Campbell, senior scientist at FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"If we want to solve issues later in life you need to invest in kids in early development," says Jessica Sowa, research associate on a project for I-PIECE, Investigating Partnerships in Early Childhood Education. I-PIECE assesses local sites and examines collaborations between Head Start, preschool programs and childcare providers receiving public subsidies. I-PIECE is studying 20 early childcare collaborations--10 in New York and 10 in Virginia. Sowa says it's difficult to generalize across all providers, but it's been a 'positive experience for the 20 lead organizations." For example, a non-profit childcare center works with a local school district, which can provide money or technical help or place a teacher in the classroom.

Experts today still quote the first three major early childhood education studies to make their point. From 1962-1967, 123 poor black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., ages 3 and 4 and at risk of failing school, participated in High/Scope Educational Research Foundation Perry Preschool study, undergoing a half-day, high quality preschool program. By age 27, participants had fewer drag dealing arrests, higher earning and economic status, more educational success, were more committed to marriage and delayed parenting compared to their counterparts without preschool.

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which started in 1986 and was based on half-day programs in Chicago schools, and the Abecedarian Early Childhood Education project, a full-day program in middle-class Chapel Hill in the 1970s, showed similar results.

And the economic benefits show that for every $1 spent on preschool, society gained $4 in benefits, according to the Abecedarian project; society gained $7, according to the Chicago study; and society gained $9, according to the Perry Preschool project. Benefits come in the way of more earnings, less welfare, less crime and less anti-social behavior, for example.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University shows that Abecedarian participants could make about $143,000 more over their lifetimes than those who do not take part in the program. And school districts can save more than $11,000 per child because they are less likely to need special or remedial education.

Even with these studies, showing such gains behind early childhood education, the Bush Administration last spring proposed a budget that cut funds or kept them level for early childcare programs, including Head Start and the Child Care and Development Grant program, which has helped welfare and low-income families pay for early education. …