Return on investing in preschool is high

By Betsy Cahill / New Mexico State University
This first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal Thursday, February 11th, 2016 at 12:02am

Dr CahillInstead of being at the bottom in child health and well-being, New Mexico should strive to meet the intellectual, economic, physical and social-emotional potential of all its children. We can do this through increased funding for programs serving young children.

Many families and communities in New Mexico face barriers such as poverty, homelessness, employment demands, parental health issues, difficulties due to discrimination regarding cultural, racial or linguistic status and limited time and/or resources that make it difficult to support children’s adequate early learning and development.

Yet early brain development depends upon interactions with adults who are responsive and from activities that challenge young children.

Access to decent housing, clean water and food, and to developmental opportunities such as quality early childhood programs increases families’ abilities to be responsive and stimulating.

It is important for our legislators and the public to understand that funding for early care and education is not about preparation for elementary school or third grade reading scores.

Instead, the intended consequence of a fully funded early care and education system is that all children, including those who are vulnerable due to poverty and other adverse childhood experiences, have improved education, employment, social and health outcomes as adults.

All too often critics claim that quality early childhood education has no lasting effect. This is not true. Standardized achievement tests and IQ measures do not predict life outcomes, but early care interventions have very positive effects.

For example, decades of longitudinal research on both the Perry Preschool Project and Head Start show extremely encouraging results. Children who attended these programs achieved more years of schoolings, higher earnings, better health and reduced crime and drug use as adults when compared to others of a similar background.

New Mexico should not try to measure the success of early care and education programs by focusing on third grade reading scores and kindergarten “readiness.” There are sounder determinants of success that should be considered if we wish to build a strong and vibrant New Mexico.

Motivation, attention, persistence, sociability and self-control have been shown to have a far greater impact on adult employment, wages and family functioning than IQ and cognitive skills.

Research tells us that the rate of return for investment in quality early childhood programs is seven to 10 percent per annum with better outcomes in health, social skills, economic productivity, education and reduced crime. These returns exceed the rate of return of most stocks and the investment builds for a better New Mexico. Each dollar invested returns $60 to $300 over a lifetime (see Nobel Prize winning Professor of Economics James Heckman).

As such, spending state funds on quality early childhood education is a smart investment as the positive return on the investment is high.

If we do not make the investment, we pay a higher cost as a society in the long run.

Betsy Cahill is the J. Paul Taylor Endowed Professor of Early Childhood Education at the New Mexico State University College of Education

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