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Why Is Early Childhood Education Important? St. Louis Leaders Weigh In

(via Flickr/katerha)

During the State of the Union Address in February, President Obama announced a plan for "Preschool for All," which would provide federal funding to states to expand early childhood education. On a recent trip to St. Louis, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reiterated that early childhood education is a priority for the president.

"The first takeaway is that investing in high quality early learning is the best educational investment that we as a nation can make," Duncan said. "As President Obama states it, it's the best bang for the educational buck because it has the best ROI, or return on investment."

In other words, it takes less money to put children on equal footing to begin with than to catch children up later.

Joining St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to talk about the importance of early childhood education in St. Louis were L. Carol Scott, executive director of Child Care Aware of Missouriand Stephen Zwolak, executive director of University City Children's Center.

"What happens for children in the first five years of their life stays with them for a lifetime," said Scott. "And we know some really concrete, direct connections between, for example, the vocabulary that children have in the early years, their ability to read at third grade, and that is a direct predictor of high school graduation as well."

A study that followed pre-schoolers in Ypsilanti, Michigan through adulthood found that children enrolled in preschool were more likely to have graduated high school and have a job at age 40, and less likely to have been involved in crime.

A study completed in North Carolina found higher math and reading ability for children who were enrolled in preschool beginning in elementary school and continuing into their adult years.

Scott pointed out that for children to receive the benefits mentioned in those studies they need to be enrolled in quality preschools. The mission of Childcare Aware of Missouri is to connect parents and children to quality early childhood education, and to promote high standards in the field. They aggregate data across the state on the availability of programs.

Scott said  at Child Care Aware Missouri they use the Lume Institute at University City Children's Center as a model.

A few decades ago, there wasn't nearly as much emphasis on early childhood education. As host Don Marsh put it, "None of this existed when we were kids."

Stephen Zwolak of University City Children's Center pointed to changes in society as the reason for the need for early childhood education.

"In 1960, 10 percent of children were in care outside the home," said Zwolak. "In 2005, 70 percent of children were in care full-time outside the home."

"Children still need naps," Zwolak said. "They still need to  think. They need time to play. They need time our nanosecond world is not giving them."

Both Scott and Zwolak emphasized the importance of talking with young children and the role of parents. They also talked about the connection between developing cognitive skills, social skills and emotional health, referencing a study completed by economist James Heckman.

"Relationships drive all of these pieces," said Zwolak.

Zwolak and Scott said St. Louis leaders in early childhood education now realize the connection between a young child's emotional development and their learning potential.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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