Our economic future depends on early investments in kids

by Ann O’Leary. Updated 4:23 pm, Friday, January 31, 2014

The likelihood of a child’s succeeding in school, leading a healthy life and productively contributing to the economic engine of California is largely set before the child ever crosses the threshold to kindergarten. Sadly, childhood poverty is the No. 1 predictor for educational success and health outcomes.

Researchers from Stanford University, led by Professor Anne Fernald, have found that by the age of 2 years, there is already a six-month gap between lower- and higher-income children in language proficiency. This new research builds on earlier work showing that very poor children typically hear 30 million fewer words addressed to them by age 3 than higher-income children. An average child from a low-income family knows 500 words by the age of 3, compared with 700 words for a child from a working-class family and 1,100 for a child from a professional family.

This gap exists both because of a lack of awareness by low-income parents and caregivers about the importance of talking directly to babies and engaging toddlers in conversation to build their vocabularies, and a lack of access to high-quality child care and preschool to provide children with language-rich environments and provide parents with tips and tools on what they can do at home.

In countless focus groups, we have heard from parents – especially non-English-speaking and low-income parents – that they do not fully understand the impact that talking, reading and singing has on developing their babies’ brains and preparing them for academic success. In fact, a 2013 national children’s survey found that Hispanic children were half as likely to have a family member read to them every day as white children, and also much less likely to have family members talk or sing to them every day.

The lack of access to quality early childhood education and parental support in these early years perpetuates this gap. Hearing fewer words translates directly into learning fewer words. The research is clear: The vocabulary gap that exists at age 4 is the greatest predictor of the achievement gap that is apparent in seventh grade and beyond.

In California, poor children, who are one-quarter of all children in the state, face real barriers. More than 40 percent of all children born in California are born to unmarried mothers, who often lack supports and income to raise their children. And more than one-third of children start kindergarten classified as English-language learners.

Under the leadership of Gov. Jerry Brown, the state has made an important commitment to educating poor and dual-language learners by ensuring that K-12 school districts get additional funding to support children who need more resources. Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula will put more money into school districts that serve low-income families and need the funds most.

But California needs to do more if we are serious about ensuring that our children can benefit from this added help. Research by Stanford Professor Sean Reardon has made it clear that most of the disparities between rich and poor are already established when children begin school, and that gap grows only minimally during the entire K-12 experience.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has introduced legislation that would make preschool universally available to all 4-year-olds. The bill builds on the state’s existing transitional kindergarten program, which serves 4-year-olds with fall birthdays. This proposal would increase funds to school districts with high concentrations of poor children and English-language learners through the same formula that the governor has championed, freeing up existing state preschool money that could then be used to expand preschool access for low-income 3-year-olds.

We have an example in our own backyard of just how well it works: In a recent evaluation of San Francisco’s Preschool for All program, researchers found that one year of enrollment in the program increased a child’s early literacy by three months and early numeracy by three to four months, and improved self-regulation.

Steinberg’s legislation also paves the way for building additional supports to low-income families with infants and toddlers, such as improved access to quality child care and Early Head Start, and voluntary home visits to connect parents with developmental and educational supports for their young children. These approaches are similar to those President Obama has outlined in his national early learning proposal and reiterated during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

If children are to fully thrive in California, we cannot wait until they enter kindergarten to provide high-quality education. Their future and our state’s economy depend on investing early in our children.

Did you know?
— Early education puts children more than a year ahead in subjects such as mathematics. Only half of California’s low-income 4-year-olds are enrolled in a preschool program.

— China and India, our primary competitors in the global marketplace, are investing heavily in their children. China has set a goal of providing 70 percent of its children with three years of preschool by 2020.

— California ranks 24th among U.S. states in terms of access to early learning programs for 4-year-olds.

— State investments in high-quality early learning programs yield returns of $2 to $3 for every $1 invested, gained through increased employment and income for state residents. Economists estimate that the societal gains of early childhood investments range from $2.50 to $16 for every $1 invested.

— High-quality preschool programs for all children would save the state an estimated $1.1 billion a year in prison costs.

— San Francisco already has in place a universal preschool initiative, offering free or reduced-price preschool for all San Francisco 4-year-olds. No other Bay Area community has such a program in place. More than 5,000 children are enrolled in San Francisco’s Preschool for All program. More than 120 preschool programs throughout the city are participating.

Sources: PISA, National Institute for Early Education Research, First 5 San Francisco

The Kindergarten Readiness Act
Introduced by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, would provide all 4-year-olds in California access to one full year of voluntary, high-quality preschool. This transitional kindergarten program will use existing state and federal funding.

Ann O’Leary is the vice president of Next Generation, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes solutions to two generational problems: climate change and the diminished prospects of children and families. To comment, go to www.sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.