Omer Aziz is a writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter, @omeraziz12.
Tolstoy was on to something when he said, "From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the new-born baby to the child of five is an appalling distance." Though the celebrated Russian writer did not have access to modern economics and sociological research to buttress the claim, it intuitively made sense.
Today, with a plethora of research on childhood development, it is clear that investing more money into preschool programs and other early education schemes leads to better outcomes for both society and the individual. This includes perhaps the most important result of all: levelling the playing field.
Consider some of the research. A poorer child has heard 30 million fewer words by age three than a wealthier child. By 24 months, poorer children who do not have access to books or development programs have learned 30 per cent fewer words than children who do. One study looking at adults who had been poor since age nine found that, in later life, areas of their brain responsible for regulating emotional activity were underdeveloped. Over a lifetime, these changes reproduce themselves and reify so that the neglected child of three may become the troubled adult of 30. It is no wonder that the American Academy of Pediatricians is now encouraging parents read aloud to their kids from birth.
A comprehensive study looking at the benefits of preschool education was conducted by the education nonprofit HighScope in the late 1960s. HighScope divided 123 children into a control group that received no preschool education and a pilot group that benefited from early education. In its latest review of findings – with the toddlers now in their 40s – the results were startling. Of the program group, 49 per cent had reached basic achievement standards by age 14, compared to 15 per cent for the control group; 60 per cent of program participants had earned at least $20,000 by age 40, while only 40 per cent of the control group did; more than half of the control group was arrested five or more times by age 40, while just over a third of the program members were.
In fact, for every dollar the state invests in early education, it can reap up to $3 in returns. A 200 per cent return on investment for a social program is not a bad deal at all.
The OECD has looked at education programs in its member nations and found a trend towards investing in early education. Some of the countries that used to lag behind in early education funding have rapidly increased the amount they spend. Since 1996, Portugal has doubled its budget for preschool while Korea has tripled it, and the U.K. has quadrupled it. The idea is catching on even in the United States, where President Barack Obama pledged to fund a universal pre-k program (though, of course, there have been few results in Washington) while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature pre-k program begins this fall.
Across the OECD, countries have recognized just how vital early education is for upward mobility. In terms of investments, Denmark leads the pack, spending 2 per cent of GDP on early childhood education while Canada ranks last, spending a quarter of 1 per cent. Canada's abysmal ranking is especially appalling because of the country's commitment to public education and its 1989 pledge to end child poverty by 2000. Two decades later, our child poverty rate has actually worsened, with a million Canadian kids living in poverty today.
Across Europe and North America, the post-Second World War welfare state was constructed to massage out the rough edges of capitalism. This meant some form of public health care, a wider safety net, and the right to retire with dignity. The welfare state has achieved these aims by focusing on the later years of development, but to truly address inequality and individual self-determination, the same logic must be applied to early education.
With increasing disparities between the rich and the rest, disproportionate gains to the 0.1 per cent, unequal outcomes in everything from access to justice to taxation rates, and little by way of legislation, it is imperative to tackle poverty and lack of opportunity at the starting line. It's no panacea, but it it's a start, and for most children – especially those who lose the birth lottery and are born into poverty – a head start is what they need the most.