The American belief that all children, even poor children, should be entitled to an equal chance at leading successful, satisfying lives is in greater peril today than at any time in the past 50 years.
Because of the economic crisis, the looming state budget strains our ability to follow through on our commitment to this American belief. We ask Gov. Pat McCrory and state legislators to partner with early childhood experts to seek a resolution that is both economically sound and scientifically grounded in evidence.
Poverty and other risk factors rob young children of a fair chance to contribute to the common good and participate fully in the democratic process. For many children born into poverty, the skills they need to succeed develop more slowly than for other children. This developmental gap begins as early as 6 months of age and widens across early childhood.
By the time poor children enter kindergarten, they have a second strike against them that we know as the achievement gap. Because the basic brain architecture develops before kindergarten, we know that children who get a poor start in life are likely to experience a third strike as adults: the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness gap.
Providing high-quality early care and education based in developmental science can better prepare young children in poverty. Two recent national studies indicate that this strategy pays off. Early Head Start is a sister program to Head Start that begins when children are infants. In a report just published, children who entered the EHS program when they were babies and who participated in early childhood education programs through their preschool years became better communicators and developed stronger cognitive skills than children who did not participate in the EHS program.
Recent findings from Educare programs lead to similar conclusions. Educare is a national network of early child care and education programs for low-income families and their children.
Researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute found that, for poor children whose family members spoke English at home and started an Educare program before age 3, the development or achievement gap was erased by the time they entered kindergarten. The same was true for children whose parents spoke a language other than English at home when they started the program before age 3 and continued in their preschool years.
North Carolina residents should be proud of their efforts to provide high-quality early care and education for our young children. Two of our state-funded early care and education initiatives, Smart Start and NC Pre-K programs, have been nationally recognized because they are based in the science of child development and have been evaluated rigorously.
Recent studies show how these financial investments pay off.
Researchers at the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy found that the amount of state funding for Smart Start and NC’s Pre-K program (previously known as More at Four) within a county was associated with increases in children’s reading and math test scores and decreases in special education placement rates when children reached third grade.
The average state allocation for early child care and education to a county resulted in gains exceeding an extra half-year of school instruction for children in that county. A different study conducted by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham center found that poor children who attended the NC Pre-K program scored higher on reading and math achievement tests at third grade than did similar children who had not attended the program.
As McCrory and state legislators face tough decisions about paying for early child care and education, which we know they take very seriously, we ask that they partner with two groups to make the best decisions for our state.
First, they should include the early childhood experts who created and now lead our nationally recognized programs because they know the science of child development. Second, they should include third-party scientific researchers, like those at our universities, because they can provide objective evidence about the effectiveness and economic returns on investment in early care and education for poor children.
Let’s prepare our children to compete and succeed so they can realize their unalienable rights.
Samuel L. Odom is professor of education and director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Kenneth A. Dodge is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.