headline A mind is a terrible thing to waste, so start educating early
In 1972, the United Negro College Fund launched its iconic advertising campaign “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” The campaign resonated deeply with the American public, helping to raise more than $2.2 billion for college scholarships. Today, this motto remains as relevant as ever. Yet scientific research suggests it’s not just college access that should concern us.
If we want to support our children’s achievement, we also need to invest in their early development from before birth to age 5. Texas already has several programs that we know work to improve outcomes for all children, but current funding falls woefully short. Greater investments in early child development are imperative for supporting children’s developing minds and lifelong learning, health and productivity.
Two profound scientific findings have dramatically changed our understanding of children’s development since that first United Negro College Fund campaign. First, researchers have acquired a much finer understanding of how the brain grows and, secondly, they have arrived at a deeper appreciation of the importance of early life experiences for brain development.
At birth, a baby’s brain is roughly a quarter of the size of an adult brain. Within three months, it more than doubles in volume and by age 3, it is about 80 percent of its final size. During these early years, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. These early connections form the basic architecture of the brain and provide the foundation for all later development.
Although genetics clearly affect brain development, scientists now recognize the highly interactive nature of genetics and environment. Children who grow up in stressful or neglectful environments form fewer neural connections and have less brain growth during their early years than children growing up in more supportive environments. As a result, they tend to be at much greater risk for lifelong physical, behavioral and mental health problems, lower educational attainment and lower earnings.
Remedial programs during school or later in life can address some of these problems, but both neuroscientific and economic studies indicate early intervention is more effective and less expensive over the long term. Gaps in children’s cognitive achievement scores at age 6 are already strong predictors, for example, of whether they will go to college, and it can be very difficult to close these gaps.
There are fortunately a number of public programs that have proven successful in supporting children’s brain development and lifelong learning and health. Nurse-home visiting programs, which assign child health professionals to visit homes before and after a child is born, have proven effective in improving maternal and newborn health, reducing child injuries and abuse and improving cognitive and behavioral development and school readiness. Quality childcare for children ages 0-3 has been shown to contribute to improved school readiness, higher test scores, higher graduation rates, higher employment and other positive outcomes.
Full-day quality pre-K programs are associated with similar gains, particularly for less advantaged children.
Texas currently supports public nurse-home visiting, childcare and pre-K programs, but only at a fraction of the level needed to support our children’s abilities to grow their brains to their fullest capacities. In comparison with other states, Texas generously supports home-visiting programs, yet it is estimated that fewer than 10 percent of children who could benefit from this program are currently served. Although Texas provides childcare subsidies to some 130,000 families, the quality of many childcare programs is low and many families lack access to needed subsidies. The Texas Pre-K program, which is so essential for school readiness, serves only about half of Texas 4-year olds and is funded by the state for only a half-day, limiting availability for the children of working parents.
The upcoming legislative session provides an opportunity for Texas to invest more heavily in its children’s futures. The state no doubt faces many challenges, from school shootings to opioid misuse. Yet many current problems can be traced at least indirectly to early brain development. The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has argued in this respect that investments in early childhood development represent some of the smartest fiscal choices governments can make.
We need to urge our legislators to commit to these investments in our children’s brains. A mind is, indeed, a terrible thing to waste, so we need to start early and make sure our children are well-supported during their earliest years when their brains are so rapidly growing.
Engster is on the faculty at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. He is co-organizer of the Early Child Development & Policy Symposium, set for Oct. 18 at the UH campus.