August 16, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 2:53 am

Early Education Pays Big Dividends

Business and education leaders in Worcester met recently to consider the impact of early childhood programs on economic development across the region. This small business sector is an essential part of the socio-economic infrastructure for employers and working parents. According to the National Economic Development and Law Center, two-thirds of children in Massachusetts live in families where all parents are in the workforce.

Without good, affordable child care, parents can't work and employers face absenteeism and reduced productivity.

Early childhood and after school programs are an economic driver in their own right as well, employing 30,000 people in Massachusetts and generating $1.5 billion in revenues.

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But most importantly, good early childhood programs are a vital investment in workforce development. Studies on the impact of high-quality early childhood education consistently show a 7 to 16 percent return on investment in better school performance, reduced special education and social welfare spending, higher educational attainment and lifetime earnings.

Interest in the potential impact of early education on the economy continues to grow because of concerns about the lagging academic performance of American students and the long-term impact on U.S. competitiveness. We've learned that merely focusing on K-12 schooling may be too little, too late.

The lag in language development and pre-literacy skills begins at a very young age. Brain research shows that infants are born ready to learn if they have appropriate interactions with their parents and caregivers. Learning to talk is a necessary precursor to learning to read.

Education researchers calculate a 30-million-word gap by age 4 between children of mothers on welfare and children of college-educated parents. Lower income children hear less spoken language so they have smaller vocabularies, and consequently, learn new words at a slower rate.

Why does this matter? It turns out that a child's verbal ability at age 3 is a reliable predictor of reading ability in third grade. Third-grade reading ability is a reliable predictor of future academic success, high school graduation and workforce readiness.

In Worcester, 65 percent of third graders are not proficient readers and will likely face challenges in developing those skills. The data shows that we should invest earlier in their education, particularly for young children from low-income families. Staff qualifications, curriculum and program leadership are crucial elements in program quality, but there is strong evidence that the space where a program operates is too often overlooked. A well-designed and equipped environment supports learning, while poorly adapted, makeshift space can undermine it. One study showed that with no change in teaching staff, child population or curriculum, a move from inadequate space into a new, carefully designed early childhood facility led to a seven-fold increase in teacher-child interactions. Those interactions are critical to language development, attitudes about learning, and children's social and emotional development.

The business community understands the impact of good workspace on employee morale and productivity. We are increasingly convinced that good work and play space is critical to educational program quality. To that end, the Children's Investment Fund is conducting a statewide inventory to assess the condition of early learning and after school facilities across Massachusetts. There are 14 Worcester program sites in the sample. We will know by early 2011 how we might improve the physical environment for these centers, so that we can help improve education outcomes for the third graders of 2015 and beyond.n

Mav Pardee is program manager for the Boston-based Children's Investment Fund, an affiliate of the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp.

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