Quest for workforce fix points to early childhood ed focus

October 10th, 2014

News Coverage:

Quest for workforce fix points to early childhood ed focus

Posted: Thursday, October 9, 2014 11:00 pm

My path to becoming involved in the Big Goal Collaborative originated with trying to solve three critical work-force problems: How to attract, grow and retain a high quality work force to stay competitive?

As a co-owner of Indiana Stamp for 20 years, I was appalled by the lack of basic math and writing skills of job applicants. We would often sift through 100 to 200 applicants to find one we were willing to hire and train. Like any good business owner, I went looking for root causes and a “fix” to this ongoing problem.

The Six Sigma technique of asking “Why?” at least five times led me to the beginning of the education continuum – to the science of brain development. My quest was so compelling that I sold my interest in our company to find a way to have a greater impact.

I had the good fortune to become one of 17 fellows in the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University in 2011. There, I found two other former business leaders from IBM and Anheuser-Busch pursuing the same issue. Based on what we learned about brain development, the economics of early learning and the achievement gap, each of us decided to devote the next stage of our lives to early childhood development.

Kindergarten Readiness Action Team

• Fifteen Northeast Indiana experts involved with the KRAT have been selected to serve on the governor’s Early Learning Advisory Committee’s seven work groups to help shape the future of early learning in Indiana.

• The Big Goal Collaborative partnered with the United Way of Allen County and PNC Bank to present “The Economics of Early Childhood Learning Summit” attended by 115 community leaders in February 2014.

• The team discovered that approximately one out of four children enter kindergarten in Northeast Indiana needing intensive help to succeed, based on basic early literacy skills. Participants believe a state-wide kindergarten readiness assessment tool is needed to help support evidenced-based decision making and drive continuous improvement in the highly fragmented early childhood domain. The Indiana Department of Education is exploring this issue, and KRAT participants have provided input.

That is when I became involved with Northeast Indiana leaders in forming the Big Goal Collaborative with a particular interest in kindergarten readiness. Here’s why:

• Research shows the foundations of lifelong learning, behavior and health are built in the earliest years.

• The “achievement gap” has been detected as early as nine months of age and widens over time without effective intervention.

• At three years of age, children who grow up in language-rich environments have heard 30 million more words on average than children from language-poor, usually low-income homes.

• The physical architecture of the brain is largely developed by age five when it attains 90 percent of its adult weight.

• The fastest period of growth of executive function skills occurs between ages three and five. These include the “character” skills of self-discipline, persistence, and social-emotional abilities that are twice the predictor of success in life that IQ is.

• The highest potential return on investment along the educational continuum is in high quality early childhood learning.

Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman compared adult outcomes for children who experienced high quality early learning opportunities with those who did not. He determined the return to society is 7 to 10 percent a year over the entire life span, or a $7 to $16 return for every $1 invested. The returns are especially high for children in poverty. The returns are based on lower costs to society for remediation, social welfare, crime and healthcare, as well as higher graduation rates, personal income and family stability.

Such research aligns with a fundamental business principle: the best way to reduce costs and improve outcomes is to address root causes upstream. Based on the best evidence we have for schools in Northeast Indiana, one out of four children who enter our kindergarten classrooms needs intensive help to catch up. Some enter school 18 months behind developmentally and lack the self-control, language, social and motor skills they need to succeed.

During the 2013-14 school year taxpayers spent $1.2 million on re-educating 282 Northeast Indiana students who were held back in kindergarten. The cost for the state as a whole was $17 million. There seems to be plenty of “rework” like this in the education system to help pay for doing things right the first time in early childhood.

The achievement gap that starts, as science tells us, with the prenatal health of a mother and her baby. It puts a child on one of two pathways. One leads to raising a generation of healthy, career or college-ready adults who benefit society by contributing to economic development, paying taxes, giving to charities and raising the next generation effectively. The other path leads to an ill-prepared generation of adults who drain society’s limited resources through crime, welfare and higher health costs.

It is hard to win a competitive race for jobs and a better quality of life if we can’t even get our children to the starting line prepared for success in school. Teaching effective parenting skills and providing high quality early learning experiences for all children are approaches proven to work.

Kindergarten readiness alone is not sufficient to prepare career and college ready 18-year-olds. It is simply the necessary foundation for all that follows and the place to invest for the highest return on our investment.

John Peirce is a former GE human resources manager and former co-owner of Indiana Stamp. He served on the Fort Wayne Community Schools board of trustees 2008-12. He now works as a consultant on early childhood initiatives for the Big Goal Collaborative, an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and United Way of Allen County.

Big Goal Collaborative

This column is part of a special Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly series that is helping break down and explain the efforts behind the Big Goal and the work underway. To read additional stories and columns in the series, visit