Research Backs Early Approach

July 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — After three years of education and planning as a member of the Early Childhood Children’s Commission, West Michigan Whitecaps CEO & Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin now knows as much about brain development as he does about fastballs.

“I went to a number of these meetings and was educated more than I had been in terms of brain development, brain architecture, the impact of stress on kids. From prenatal to year five, it’s incredible,” Chamberlin said. “It didn’t take long for me to see how important an investment in a child at that stage of life can be.”

That realization among business owners, who are always in the market for a competitive work force, is helping to fuel a new wave of early childhood programs across the country, said Ben Emdin. Executive director of the Early Childhood Children’s Commission in Kent County, Emdin’s career has crisscrossed education and business several times, including stints as COO at Grand Rapids Public Schools, Forest Hills Board of Education president, retail children’s furniture store owner and health club owner. 

“This is really going on across the country,” Emdin said. “There is more and more evidence popping up that this is an investment that has big paybacks.”

Emdin and Chamberlin point to recent brain research and business studies that support the concept of reaching out to children at the earliest stages of life. The early childhood movement is fueled by often-cited influential studies from Rand Corp., the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago.

A 2006 report from Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, argued that each dollar invested in early childhood programs reaps between $1.26 and $17 in saved costs and social benefits.

The report listed a host of benefits from early childhood intervention, such as: keeping children out of special education; reducing the number of students who must repeat a grade in school; increasing high school graduation rates; reducing juvenile crime; reducing the number of youngsters who wind up on welfare as adults; increasing the number of students who go to college; and helping adults who participated in the programs as children get better jobs and earn higher incomes, according to a Rand press release.

Early childhood intervention programs are intended to counter risks that impede a child’s readiness for school, the report stated. Risks include the family’s poverty, single-parent households, neighborhood poverty and lack of resources, lack of regular health care and a lack of parent-led interaction with numbers, letters and music.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 20.5 percent of Michigan children up to 5 years old lived in poverty as of 2005.

Arthur J. Rolnick, senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and his colleague Rob Grunewald, associate economist, studied government spending about five years ago. They found the return-on-investment figures for publicly funded preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

One of the longitudinal studies they used was the 1960s-era High/Scope study of low-income black preschoolers at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti. While that study tracked income, offender status and other measures, it also reported an economic benefit of $8 per $1 invested.

“Policymakers should place this result in context with returns from other economic development projects,” Rolnick stated in the paper.

Heckman, noting the relatively low success rate of job training programs in late adolescence, started studying the effects of preschool programs. He found that they were far more effective in fostering the motivation, self-control and ability to look forward that are key to later socioeconomic success.

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