bang for your buck

Investing early in quality child care for at-risk kids pays off big later, research finds

A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning.

New research reveals that despite hefty up-front costs, quality child care programs for disadvantaged children starting just after birth and continuing to age five produce major financial dividends over the long term.

Such programs yield an annual return of 13 percent per child — generating $6.30 for every $1 initially invested in the program, according to the research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman.

The rate of return, which Heckman described as “huge,” is significantly higher than the 7 to 10 percent rate he found in previous research focusing just on the impact of preschool.

“We think this is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward,” Heckman said during a media briefing Thursday.

The study, released Monday, was authored by Heckman and other researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California. Heckman is known for his groundbreaking research on the economics of early childhood education.

With many cities and states focused on the expansion of full-day kindergarten or preschool in recent years, the new findings bolster arguments for early childhood investments that also cover kids’ first three years.

“The public policy literature has understated the importance of the very early years,” Heckman said.

At the same time, the study further documents the non-educational benefits of quality child care for at-risk children, particularly when it comes to long-term health outcomes.

“We’re seeing an improved human being in terms of the health capacity…at age 35,” said Heckman. “That’s a big benefit and it’s not a benefit that’s been considered in looking at these early childhood programs in the past.”

He said the research team’s projections show lower risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease among children who attended the high-quality programs studied, as well as a reduction in unhealthy habits like smoking and drug use.

”What we found is a substantial reduction in those health costs and a much healthier workforce going forward,” he said.

The new study compared children who attended two intensive child care programs in North Carolina starting in the 1970s — the Carolina Abecedarian Project and Carolina Approach to Responsive Education — with those in a control group who had lower-quality child care arrangements.

In 2014 dollars, the annual cost of the intensive programs would be more than $18,000 per child.

In addition to providing full-day, full-year care and regular health exams to the children, the two programs provided child care subsidies to the parents, enabling them to work. Researchers followed participants from eight weeks old until age 35, examining a variety of outcomes, including educational attainment, earnings, health and involvement in crime.

While the early intensive programs benefitted all children, they benefitted boys most.

Heckman said the finding points to the likelihood that boys are more vulnerable and less resilient than girls if placed in low-quality child care settings.

“There do seem to be more harmful consequences for boys than for girls,” he said.

Although the two programs studied operated 40 years ago, the research team noted that such comprehensive birth-age 5 programs exist around the world today. Heckman cited the national Educare network of model child care centers as one example.

Denver’s Clayton Early Learning houses one such center and President and CEO Charlotte Brantley said she welcomed the new study.

“The research is absolutely telling us this is worth the upfront investment,” she said. “I applaud him for coming out one more time, saying this yet again.”

Brantley said there are few programs as comprehensive as Clayton in the state, though some full-day, full-year Head Start and Early Head Start programs may offer something similar.

Clayton, which offers care for infants starting at six weeks of age, provides extensive staff training, in-depth assistance for parents and has very low staff-child ratios. Brantley said the center recently embarked on a pilot project to train other providers on some of Clayton’s key practices.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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