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St. Paul, Minn. — From the moment they're born, children are learning. Every taste, every touch, every taunt helps or hinders the process. That's because deep inside a baby's developing brain, tiny neuro-circuits are still searching for pathways to connect cells. Eventually these neuro-circuits will help kids speak and solve problems -- learn. But long before that happens, scientists say the circuits need to make a good connection, and that depends a lot on the quality of a child's earliest experiences. "Positive experiences result in the development of kind of sound circuitry."
Jack Shonkoff is one of the nation's foremost experts on early childhood learning. He's a Brandeis University professor of human development, a pediatrician and author of the report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. By "positive experiences," Shonkoff means giving a child healthy food, a safe place to live and activities that stimulate learning, like reading. A young brain should develop normally under these conditions.
"At the same time, high levels of stress and deprivation result in the development of faulty circuits in the brain that we then live with for the rest of our lives."
He's not talking about the ordinary stress kids feel when they're told they can't play with a certain toy. Shonkoff is talking about extreme, prolonged stress -- the kind that comes from not getting enough to eat, from being evicted frequently, or from witnessing drug abuse and violence. Kids growing up in these environments release high levels of stress chemicals into their brains that damage circuits.
"They actually interfere with the growth of the brain. They can interfere with the connections among cells, the formation of healthy nerve circuits," says Shonkoff.
So what does a faulty circuit have to do with learning?
First, it can prevent a child from sending or receiving clear messages. If you compare it to radio reception, it would be similar to encountering static on the edge of a station's signal. You can still hear the station, but you can't quite make out all of the information. Faulty brain circuits can also affect a child's ability to solve problems. Before long, Shonkoff says the achievement gap begins to appear.
"For children who are at risk, the gap between their performance and the performance of children who are not at risk begins to appear as early as 18 months of age on standardized tests. And that gap gets greater and greater, so by the time that you get to kindergarten, children who are living in very high-risk environments are already way behind," according to Shonkoff.
While there are exceptions, poverty appears to be a common thread linking many underachieving kids -- in part because it causes extreme stress and because it limits educational opportunities. Take language for example.
"Low income families with lower education levels tend to talk less to their children, tend to use less complicated sentence structures, tend to ask fewer questions of their children, tend to give more orders," says Shonkoff. "And that has a lot to do with the language environment in which children are growing up and developing their own language abilities." Neteshia grew up in poverty and at 25, she still hasn't escaped it. But like most parents, she wants something better for her two young children.
"I don't want them to follow the same footsteps that I did," she says.
Neteshia is African American, and she's a product of Minnesota's achievement gap.
"High school was a party. I mean we partied a lot, and we skipped a lot. And when it was time to do homework, nah, it didn't get done. I was failing until I just stopped going, and the party life took over," Neteshia says.
She's now single, unemployed, and concerned about her kids' future. Statistics show that Neteshia's academic failings could easily pass on to her children, QuNeshia, 3, and Dayday, 6. But so far it doesn't appear to be happening. And the reason may be because Neteshia's kids have attended a highly-structured, intense childcare program since they were babies.
The Northside Child Development Center is located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, just a few blocks off the busy freeway. The crime rate is high here, and all of the kids who attend Northside live in poverty. Most are African American. But inside the security doors, Northside is an oasis from the problems of the inner city. The center's walls are filled with color, laughter and learning.
This is where brain science has some good news. For all of the grim findings that show the harm caused by early stressful experiences, research also shows that young brains are resilient and can overcome setbacks with the right kind of stimuli. But it takes a lot of effort.
Northside doesn't have daycare providers, it has highly-trained early childhood teachers. There's also a very low ratio of students to teachers, so each kid gets a lot of specialized attention.
Northside educates parents too, teaching them how do a better job. Staff visit families in there homes, and occasionally videotape parents who are having problems interacting with their kids.
Neteshia didn't know any of this when she picked Northside. But now that she does, she's hoping the center will help her kids graduate from high school one day and maybe even go on to college. Her 3-year-old daughter, QuNeshia, seems to be thriving already. Sitting on her mom's lap, QuNeshia happily sings her ABCs.
These programs are expensive. Hennepin County pays a significant portion of the bill for most Northside families. Catholic Charities also contributes. But recently, several families had to drop out anyway because the state has cut early childhood grants to counties. Some economists think that's shortsighted.
"For children who are at risk, the gap between their performance and the performance of children who are not at risk begins to appear as early as 18 months of age on standardized tests."
"You're not going to get a better return than birth-to-five right now," says Art Rolnick, senior vice president at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.
Rolnick got interested in early childhood education a few years ago, during the debate about building new sports stadiums. Rolnick didn't think the state would get a good return on its investment. When he began researching what would, he came across studies showing amazing rates of return for early childhood programs.
One study in Michigan, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, had the best numbers. It followed a group of 3 and 4-year-old African American kids born in poverty. Some received a high-quality preschool program. The others didn't. The study tracked their progress through school and into their late 20s. Rolnick says Michigan saved a lot of money on the kids who attended preschool.
"We found that the rate of return overall was 16 percent, annual rate, inflation adjusted, and 12 percent was public. Because if the child got an early ed program they were less likely to need special ed, they were less likely to be retained in the first grade, so they'd be more likely to graduate from first to second grade," Rolnick says.
But Rolnick says the best news was in the crime rate.
"In this one particular study it went down 50 percent. And it wasn't just this study."
Rolnick and few of his business friends were so impressed by these findings that they have come up with a scholarship plan to help disadvantaged Minnesota families pay for high quality early education. He wants to give scholarships to any family with young kids that meets the poverty guidelines.
They would be sizable -- as much as $12,000 a year. Families could use them for any early education program, but part of the money would be withheld until the child passed Minnesota's school readiness test.
The estimated cost of Rolnick's program is $1.5 billion set aside in an endowment. He would use the interest generated each year to pay for the scholarships. If Rolnick can convince the state, the federal government and private groups to invest in his idea, he will start with a pilot program for 200 families, perhaps in the next year.
Rolnick believes his plan is doable. So does researcher Jack Shonkoff.
"There's no question we can shift the odds toward more favorable outcomes for more and more children. There's no question that we will lessen the financial burden on the school systems. There's no question that more children will do better if we invest early," says Shonkoff. "The question is whether we have the political will, and whether we have the patience to kind of see that return."
Early education has critics. Some argue that government-sponsored programs ignore the parents' responsibility to prepare their kids for school, and unfairly put the burden on taxpayers.
Studies also show that it is possible to lose the benefits of early education, if kids end up in a dysfunctional school once they get to kindergarten.
But proponents say you can also look at it like this -- if all kids are ready for school, there probably won't be any dysfunctional schools, making it much easier for teachers to keep kids on track.