A Science-Based Investment Strategy
Using Neuroscience to time our investments in nebraska's continued growth
Any responsible investment strategy depends not only on knowing where to invest, but also when. Professional athletes understand that putting off training until just before a competition is highly unlikely to result in success. Similarly, we should understand that it is simply not cost efficient to delay investments in the skill formation of our state's young citizens until they are well into their K-12, postsecondary or vocational education.
In recent years, Nebraska's business leaders, educators and policymakers have increased their focus on career education and preparation programs for middle school and high school students. This is a step in the right direction. But the best neuroscientific evidence tells us we need to look even earlier to fully maximize our public and private investments in the successful development of our state's young citizens and workers.
Brain Development in early childhood
In the earliest years of life, the human brain produces more than a million new synaptic connections per second. During this time, this emerging neural circuitry is extremely flexible and receptive to the kinds of experiences a child encounters. The more dynamic, engaging and supportive children's experiences are during this time, the stronger the neural foundations will be for lifelong learning.
But as children age beyond their earliest years, neural flexibility rapidly decreases, requiring greater physiological effort to absorb new information, behaviors and skills. Ongoing educational opportunities in the K-12 system and beyond are necessary to help young people reach their full potential. However, the earliest years mark a unique moment in maximizing lifelong skill development and productivity.
Early Investments offset greater public costs downstream
The kinds of positive early developmental experiences that help create healthy brain architecture are the same as those that promote skill formation across a lifetime. Emotionally supportive and cognitively stimulating experiences in the earliest years of life foster the core language, math, critical thinking and behavioral skills that are necessary for success in Nebraska's classrooms and communities. Over time, these skills mature into more complex competencies that inform a healthy, self-sufficient and productive adulthood.
Positive early developmental experiences targeted at our youngest, most vulnerable children have the potential to offset significant fiscal burdens carried by Nebraska's taxpayers. Research into model early childhood programs suggests children at risk who begin life with positive, well-coordinated early learning opportunities may be:
- Significantly less likely to experience grade retention by age 15 (23.0% vs. 38.4%)
- Significantly less likely to require special education service by age 18 (14.4% vs. 24.6%)
- More likely to earn a bachelor's degree (14.3% vs. 8.2%) or master's degree (5.9% vs. 2.3%) by age 25
- Significantly (46%) more likely to hold a stable, full-time job at age 25
- Less likely to be arrested as juveniles (37%<), involved in a felony arrest (22%<) and abuse drugs and alcohol by age 28 (28%<)
Considering the significant public expense of special education services, school dropout and corrections, it simply makes good fiscal sense to invest early in children's skill formation.
Bottom Line: Targeted Investments in young children deliver the greatest returns
It's important that Nebraska invest in the healthy development and education of its citizens into adulthood. However, economic analyses show that investments in very young children at risk offer the greatest returns at a societal level compared to various human capital investments made later in life.
Nobel-winning economist James Heckman has calculated that model high-quality programs offering comprehensive services to children at risk from birth to age 5 can produce as much as a $13 return for each dollar invested.