Early Childhood Development for Human Capital Development

˙ PREAL Blog

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Reacting to a previous blog post that I wrote on Early Grade Reading as a way to improve the quality of education in Latin America, a good friend and international expert on Early Childhood Development (ECD) suggested that efforts to introduce reading practice should start at the pre-school level (both in the classroom and at home).

I fully agree with him and with Masaro Ibuka, co-founder of SONY, who in 1971 wrote a book with the message that kindergarten is too late to begin human capital development. Likewise, James Heckman, Economics Nobel Laureate, said in 2001 that we cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school – a time when it may be too late to intervene.

The reason I agree with them is because ECD may be the most cost-effective educational investment.  ECD has a high rate of return in part because it takes place during the time when the human brain grows the most (see Figure 1).  If a child does not receive needed support at this stage of her/his life, opportunities may be missed, a misfortune that I have seen many times.

In addition, empirical evidence mostly – but not exclusively – from high-income countries, shows that quality ECD increases educational success and adult productivity, and decreases public expenditures later on.  As examples of the first type of impact, ECD is associated with improvements in education test scores at the primary level; reduction of grade repetition and dropouts; an increase in high school graduation rates; reduction of behavioral problems, delinquency and crime; and better employment and earnings.  As for reduction in public expenditures, ECD increases school effectiveness and reduces social services, crime, and health (teen pregnancy and smoking) costs.  And finally, it reduces welfare dependency.

Policymakers in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 30% of pre-school age children are not enrolled in ECD programs, should pay attention to good ECD practices elsewhere.  Sweden, for example, invests 2.5 times more public resources on a one-year-old that on a high school student (see Figure 2.)  In other words, they focus investment on the stage of life where returns are highest.  Good ECD programs shape brain architecture and help set the stage for future learning, positive behavior and good health outcomes.  And ECD saves money in the long run because it prevents problems before they start and reduces later needs for special education and other remedial measures.

During my career at the World Bank, I had the privilege of working on several ECD projects in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean.  Based on these experiences, I can attest to the benefits of investing in ECD.  Such investments are particularly effective when governments intervene early, often and effectively; allocate sufficient resources on a timely basis; ensure relevant training to instructors, teachers or promoters; provide effective educational materials on a timely basis; and implement monitoring and evaluation, including measuring childhood development outcomes.  Good ECD programs must also take into account equity and financial sustainability.

Finally, lessons learned from international best practices emphasize the importance of building systems, not just projects.  This means that ECD needs to be included as part of the whole education sector – a topic that I may save for a future post.

The author is an Independent Consultant with 35 years of international experience in the education sector. While at the World Bank, he served as the Education Sector Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean and for East Asia and the Pacific.