For the most part, basic neuroscience research has had zero influence on public policy. Knowing about the dopamine reward pathway and the substrate of addiction hasn’t changed the War on Drugs. (Although it certainly should. At the very least, we should decriminalize marijuana.) Knowing about memory reconsolidation and the inherent dishonesty of recollection hasn’t changed the way police deal with eyewitnesses or the way juries consider testimony. (Although it certainly should.) Knowing about the neural effects of credit cards hasn’t changed credit card regulations. And so on.
But there has been one major payoff from our investigations of the brain: an increasing emphasis on educating young children, before they reach kindergarten. Decades of research have demonstrated that the cortex is astonishingly plastic at a young age and that many important traits and habits seem to solidify before the age of 4. (This isn’t to discount the power of plasticity in the adult brain – it just takes a lot more work to make it happen.) When combined with the brilliant work of James Heckman, this research led policymakers to realize that investing in pre-K education had an incredibly high-rate of return. Here’s a chart, demonstrating the “rate-of-return” of various public investments:
This led, over the last decade, to an increasing emphasis at the state level on pre-K education. Since 2000, dozens of states have provided funding for free classes for 3 year olds, allowing teachers to reach the mind at its most malleable. But now, thanks to the economic mess, these same states are pulling back. The problem, of course, is that toddlers don’t vote, which means that it’s easier for lawmakers to preserve an ineffective job training program than it is to keep funding for preschool. Here’s the NY Times:
From 2002 to 2008, spending on pre-kindergarten by states nearly doubled, to $4.6 billion from $2.4 billion, enabling states to increase enrollment to 1.1 million preschoolers from about 700,000.
But given the economic decline, nine states — Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina — have already announced cuts to state-run pre-kindergarten programs, Dr. Barnett said.
And legislatures are debating cutbacks in some others, including Tennessee and Washington State, he said.
“All of this may produce dire consequences for state pre-K programs,” says the new report, the State of Preschool 2008, by the National Institute for Early Education Researchat the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. “In most states, expenditures on pre-K are entirely discretionary and therefore easier to cut than expenditures for some other program.”
Hopefully, an influx of federal dollars can prevent these budget cuts from taking place. (It’s so nice to have a president who understands the importance of early education.) When times are tough, it’s more important than ever to focus on the most cost-effective long-term investments. The Yankees don’t need a new stadium, but kids in the Bronx certainly need preschool.