The Power of Early Education

One of the many priceless moments in the 1990 film “Kindergarten Cop” takes place when Detective John Kimble, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, tries to explain why he is a kindergarten teacher. To a teacher colleague, who is unaware he has entered the school in an undercover role, he explains, “I got tired of teaching teenagers because by the time they came to me I felt there wasn’t much I could do with them. I realized that the real action is in kindergarten.”

Extending Kimble’s argument, we could be comfortable saying that birth to five—even pre-natal—is the real arena. No one should be surprised to read this—the “revelation” has become a commonplace. Dr. Maria Montessori based her educational method on the power of early education. She wrote, “The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth. From this almost mystic affirmation there comes what may seem a strange conclusion: that education must start from birth.”[1]

Researchers since the 1980s have been conducting brain research on young children, coming to the same conclusions. In 1997 Julee Newberger, in the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), summed up the buzz created by this research writing that, contrary to the previously held view that we have the brains we were born with, “A child’s environment has an enormous impact on how the circuits of the brain will be laid.”[2] By 2000 Nobel laureate and University of Chicago professor James Heckman announced, “Learning starts in infancy, long before formal education begins, and continues throughout life. Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success, just as early failure breeds later failure.”[3] In the same year a report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine observed, “The human brain develops more rapidly between birth and age five than during any other subsequent period.”[4]

So, given the tectonic shift in understanding the importance of early childhood education, what have we as a society done about it? While children ages birth to three represent 13.6 percent of children (through college age) less than 4 percent of public investments on education and development are used for them.[5] Median salary for a Day Care Teacher is just over $24,000 per year, while the salary of an assistant professor—the starting rung—is almost $60,000.[6] We don’t even need to mention the salaries of football coaches. While we require the college professors to complete graduate degrees—usually Ph.D.—we have no requirement for Child Care teachers to go beyond high school.

To put it even more personally, how often do we notice a decal proudly announcing the name of the child development center the driver attended years earlier? Are the important formative years the four years of college, or the four years before kindergarten? We have memorized the answer, but our walk does not match our talk, and I am as guilty as you, dear reader. I can still sing the college fight song but not one from my pre-kindergarten days. I wear my class ring from college, not from child care. In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that when I was age three child development centers hardly existed and I never attended school before Kindergarten. But as women entering the workforce doubled in the 1970s and 80s, child care became a necessity, increasing from serving 15 percent of children in 1987 to 29 percent in 1997, and 35 percent in 2006.[7] Unfortunately, the phenomenon has an economic origin, and is not the outcome of reflection on the importance of early education.

What difference does it make? Logically, children prepared to enter school learn better and faster, have better grades, drop out less frequently, are more likely to graduate and less likely to run afoul of the law. More skilled and employable young people equates to fewer felons. These data can be quantified. In a report published in 2007 of three recent studies, researchers Judy Temple and Arthur Reynolds estimated that the cost-benefit ratio of early childhood education—pre-kindergarten—is over 1 to 4 (with a range of 4 to 10.15), and it increases over time.[8] This means that a dollar spent on early childhood education has at least the value of four dollars of “public benefit”. The authors calculated public benefit from dollars not spent on subjects who, as a statistical result of a pre-school experience, did not need expenditure of funds later. One of the studies revealed that preschool participation resulted in 31 percent reduction in grade retention, a 50 percent reduction in special education class assignment, and a 32 percent reduction in high school dropout rate. Another of the studies revealed a 33 percent decrease in juvenile petitions by age 18, and the third showed a 40 percent decrease in arrests by age 19. Adults with a pre-kindergarten experience in one study had 39 percent greater salaries than the control group without that experience.

The subject has an important economic facet. Children from economically stressed backgrounds do not succeed as well as those whose parents can (and do) afford enriching opportunities. Child enriching programs are usually not free. Children of those who can’t afford such programs are less likely to be ready for school, and therefore be more likely to fail at it. Lower income families are statistically more likely to require child care, and are at the same time less able to afford it, particularly developmental programs. Malcolm Gladwell analyzed standardized tests in the Baltimore school district and discovered that the gap between children of wealthier families and poorer families occurred only during the summer, when the former were enrolled in enrichment activities the latter couldn’t afford.[9] We don’t need to go very far to find the source of our poor ranking nationally (as a state): poverty. Unless we are prepared to ensure all children have access to enriched programs before they begin school we are guaranteeing ourselves a future very much like our present.

So where do we go from here? If only we had money to allocate to early childhood development, in ten or fifteen years we would have more successful students who became more employable adults with higher salaries, breaking the cycle of poverty. So let’s borrow from future budgets for high school repeaters and remedial classes, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and the Department of Corrections, and public law enforcement, and put it into early childhood education. Divert funds projected to fix future problems by coercive means to developing a future where less coercion is needed. While we would see a remarkable saving in budgets, just imagine the quality of the lives benefiting from our vision!

[1] Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (New York, 1995), p. 4.

[2] Julee J. Newberger, “New Brain Development Research—A Wonderful Window of Opportunity to Build Public Support for Early Childhood Education,” Young Child (May 1997).

[3] Heckman J. J. “Invest in the very young,” in: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2004:1-2. Available at: Accessed 2011.

[4] National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2000.

[5] Child and Family Policy Center & Voices for America’s Children, Early Learning Left Out: An Examination of Public Investments in Education and Development by Child Age, 2004.


[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2005/Summer 2006” Household Economic Studies (August 2010). Grace O'Neill and Martin O'Connell State Estimates of Child Care Establishments: 1977 – 1997, Abstract.

[8] Judy A. Temple and Arthur J. Reynolds, “Benefits and costs of investments in preschool education: Evidence from the Child–Parent Centers and related programs,” Economics of Education Review, volume 26, Issue 1 (February 2007), 126-144.

[9] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York, 2008), 258.

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