EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION MATTERS. THE SCIENCE SAYS IT DOES
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
That’s the giant part of a child’s brain formed by the time she blows out the candles on her sixth birthday cake.
Ninety percent. Those are the first two words that pop into Sam Meisels’s head when the founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska is quizzed by a stranger.
Ninety percent is our starting point today, as we consider a basic but key question: Why does quality early childhood education matter, anyway?
In 2020, most Nebraskans tell us in surveys that early childhood education is important to them. To parents, especially, the need for help is obvious: Roughly 75% of all young Nebraska children grow up in homes where all parents work.
But what we may lack is a statewide understanding of just how crucial high-quality early childhood education is, and why.
the lives of young children, especially those growing up in poverty.
If you understand its true importance, it’s easier to understand why we need to ensure that every young Nebraskan has access to it. If you understand its true importance, it’s easier to understand why we need to pay early childhood teachers more and end rampant child care shortages in our state. It’s also why we should pay close attention to Thursday’s release of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission Report.
In the past half-century, researchers have learned stunning things about how and how quickly the brain develops—science revolutionizing how we view small children and learning. Experts have done decades-long studies on early childhood programs—work suggesting that a toddler’s experiences in early care and education can alter the trajectory of his life.
Not so long ago, we viewed young children as blank slates who didn’t need to learn much before entering Kindergarten. Now we know that stimulating brain growth long before Kindergarten can have a massive impact on her future education, her future earnings, and even her future health.
This shift in thinking began where we started today: 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed by the time he turns 6.
Starting the moment you are born, a million neural connections form each second in all parts of the brain, says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. That insanely rapid early brain growth builds “the foundation of who we will become as people.”
The growth of new connections slows rapidly before puberty. Rewiring existing connections also gets tougher with each passing year. That’s why it is much easier to learn a new language at age 7 than age 77.
“It’s more efficient, both biologically and economically, to get things right the first time than to try to fix them later,” Meisels says.
So, how do we get things right the first time?
There are many ways. High-quality early childhood education can happen in a home, at a school, or an early childhood center.
But no matter how it is delivered, a mountain of research shows that good early education can change the lives of young children—especially young children growing up in poverty.
Consider the Perry Preschool Project, a 1960s study that provided free preschool to a group of Michigan 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income homes. Experts then studied those who got early education, and those who didn’t, until the 3- and 4-year-olds were middle aged.
The kids who received quality early childhood education were less likely to be enrolled in special education classes; more likely to become good junior high students; and far more likely to graduate from high school.
Fascinatingly, the gains seemingly made at age 3 or 4 continued right on into adulthood.
right the first time, said the Buffett Institute's Sam Meisels.
Four times as many Perry preschoolers as non-preschoolers ended up making a living wage. Triple the number of Perry preschoolers ended up owning their own home. Twice as many avoided welfare.
The Perry preschoolers had fewer teenage pregnancies. They got divorced less. Fewer ended up in prison.
Researchers have seen similar, eye-popping results from decades-long studies that followed early childhood students in Illinois and North Carolina. The North Carolina study even showed that young children who received quality early childhood education actually ended up healthier as adults, with lower rates of heart disease and diabetes for men, and better mental health for women.
Knowing all this, it’s easy to see why James Heckman, the famed, Nobel-winning economist, views quality early childhood education as a better investment than the stock market. Other experts have calculated that every dollar we spend on early childhood education gets us back an average of $4—and as much as $13 in the case of at-risk children. Why? Because we spend less down the road on social safety net programs, special education, and even prison cells. And because a well-educated young child tends to turn into a well-educated young adult who tends to turn into an employed, taxpaying American.
Early childhood education is no magic bullet, no cure-all for everything that ails our state and country.
But the people who have studied it the longest, and those working at the cutting edge of brain development, tend to view early childhood education as the single best way make our future better than our present.
Nebraskans already understand this at a gut level. Public opinion polling in our state shows that a strong majority of Nebraskans—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—support early childhood education. We care about families. We care about children. We want to help build that better future.
The groundwork is already being laid to do just that by improving early childhood education in this state. Schools, nonprofits, and small towns are building up their own early childhood offerings. Businesses are working to solve child care shortages for their employees. The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission is offering a potential statewide path forward.
And now, with a little understanding of the science behind early childhood’s value, you can help.
Ninety percent. That’s how much of a child’s brain is formed by age 6. Tell your friends, your neighbors, your brother-in-law, your elected representatives, anyone who asks why early childhood education matters. Because it most certainly does.
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.