330,000 children annually are born premature in the U.S. Children born prematurely often have learning difficulties and many end up in Special Education or being held back a year, which, besides being less than ideal for the children and their families obviously, also costs the state a lot of money. And that's not even considering the additional individual and societal costs of failing students dropping out and falling through the cracks or into the prison system.
Last week, National Public Radio had a story (Early Education Boosts Prospects of Premature Children) on a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics. The study, lead by Maureen McCormick (no, not Marcia from the Brady Bunch) of the Harvard Public School of Health, focused on the long-term effects on early childhood enrichment programs, following 1,000 prematurely born children through the age of 18, half of whom received special educational care in their earliest years (0-3). Most of the kids who received the early education had higher reading and math scores. The exception was the smallest premies, who lost some of the initial gains they had shown in earlier reports on this study (higher IQ scores in their first years of school).
Dr. McCormick argues that if early childhood education programs can have such a positive effect even on children who are born at a developmental disadvantage, then they can help all children.
Putting aside moral implications, from an economic standpoint, the question is, does the investment required to provide early childhood programs to everyone, or even just to biologically disadvantaged kids like premies or economically disadvantaged children, pay off in the end? I would argue the evidence has been stacking up that early childhood education makes a significant difference, and even if you figure from a purely dollars and cents POV that it's cheaper for the state to build more prisons to deal with the kids who fall through the cracks, you are not taking into account the benefits of innovation and productivity that a well-educated society brings.
Aside from that, it's just the right thing to do. It's hard to look at a study like this which clearly shows the positive impact of aggressively funding early education and then have a discussion over whether the richest country in the world can afford it. (No, I'm not talking about Luxembourg.)
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