Early childhood advocates have been making the case for higher quality, more accessible early childhood programs for years. More recently, economists have come on board. For those people needing convincing, the economic argument is compelling. Study after study has shown that investments in early education results in fewer special needs placements, increased school success, more graduates, better educated workforce, declines in crime and poverty, and declines in substance abuse. The cost of not investing in early childhood education is huge.
“If we as a society had the foresight to invest in comprehensive early intervention services, the returns would be astounding, better than the most profit-yielding stocks of our time” (Heckman and Masterov, 2007). Nobel Laureate in economics, Dr. James Heckman, has released a paper showing an approximate 13 percent return on investment for dollars spent on early care and education.
The economic benefit of early intervention is unmistakable. The case is settled. However, most are still not convinced. In Canada, a purportedly progressive country, we are still way behind. Canada offers one year of maternity leave, at a significantly reduced rate, 55% of the wages paid. We also have no universal access to preschool. After one year of maternity leave, a mother is forced to chose between keeping her job or staying home with her child. Out of fear, many mothers choose their job only to pay the majority (or more) of their salary to their child’s new caregiver. Not so progressive.
Scandinavian countries offer longer and better paid maternity and parental leave, at 80% percent (and above) of wages paid, and up to 460 days in Sweden. Finland offers every single child the right to early childhood education and care should their parents want. This is a more serious commitment to early childhood education and development. Like so many other things, Scandinavian countries got there first, and are reaping the benefits. Nordic countries have significantly lower infant mortality rates, better school scores, and a far lower poverty rates than the United States for example. You would think that all this “big government” intervention would have crippled their respective economies. Well, it hasn’t. As of 2016, Sweden tops the charts as the most competitive economy in the European Union. Three of the top ten most competitive economies in the world were Scandinavian countries. And for good measure, 4 of the top 5 happiest countries in the world are Scandinavian.
Scandinavian countries got something else right: the quality of the education matters. It’s not just about what you do, it’s about how you do it. Their preschools are accessible, and well staffed, with well trained Early Childhood Educators. The preschools are not overly concerned with early academic success. Play and healthy socialization are the focus. A lot of the play happens outside, in nature. The self-directed/self-generated learning approach encourages natural curiosity and motivation rather than how standardized evaluation seems to diminish it. This quality care that respects each child as an autonomous individual is paying huge dividends. Scandinavian countries regularly top the list in terms of school satisfaction, academic success, and world rankings.
Early high-quality investment in young people should be paramount for any country that wants to get ahead. Of course there is more to it than just the economic argument. It would be great if we invested in our children because it was the right thing to do. I’ll take it either way.