The 2011 National Business Summit on Early Childhood Investment drew attendees from 34 states to Boston last week to share experiences and commit themselves to advocate for high-quality early education. The conference was convened by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success (PAES), which is managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. (Check out the PAES guide to engaging business leaders.)
Massachusetts was well-represented with more than a dozen leaders from the Springfield area, including Mary Walachy and Sally Fuller of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which organized Springfield Business Leaders for Education. Other Bay State attendees included J.D. Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and chair of the state’s Board of Early Education and Care; Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education; Paul Alexander, senior vice president of Liberty Mutual; and others. “Unless little kids get what they need, we as citizens are not doing our job,” Nancy Urbshcat, owner of TSM Design in Springfield, told the Republican.
Governor Deval Patrick addressed the gathering and recounted his own journey, fueled by education, from poverty in Chicago to affluence and political power in Massachusetts. He also described his visit to a first grade classroom at the Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury. After the children recited Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, their teacher asked them to talk about equality and other concepts in the speech, “teasing out of them” the governor said, “a demonstration that they understood what they were reciting.” Patrick was moved to tears. “I got a lot of notes that said ‘Sorry I made you cry.’”
Among those welcoming business leaders to Boston were Eric S. Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Donna Cupelo, region president of Verizon New England and chair of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. “We can all do more to engage in advocacy,” Cupelo said. “Our children cannot afford to fall behind at such an early age.”
The agenda included presentations on funding and the economic impacts of investments in early childhood. Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville spoke on a panel on models of best practices in state governance, and Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care spoke on a panel on creating an accountable system of high-quality early education.
Business leaders from around the country talked about their efforts to increase investments in young children. The Vermont Business Roundtable, for instance, played a leading role in successfully persuading the state’s legislature to lift a cap on pre-kindergarten enrollment in communities with under-performing schools.
Also presenting at the conference was Michael Eskew, chairman of the board of trustees of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and retired president and CEO of UPS. “Measure outcomes, not inputs,” he counseled. David Lawrence, chairman of The Children’s Movement of Florida and president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, talked about creating a political movement for children in Florida and about the successful referendum in Miami-Dade County in which voters okayed an increase in property taxes to fund services for children. “A movement can only be about all children,” Lawrence said. “It can never be about other children. It’s about our children.”
The conference’s opening dinner featured a keynote address by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the pediatrician who directs the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “For brain development,” he said, “3 is like pushing middle age.”
After outlining the scientific case for investing in young children, Shonkoff pressed for new ways to address children’s issues holistically, rather than in separate silos such as health, education and economic development. He said a business perspective could help in the search for new ways to bring effective, sustainable interventions to scale. “The private sector,” he said, “knows and understands and lives and breathes innovation.”
Shonkoff’s groundbreaking 2000 report, “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” uses scientists’ increased understanding of the complex relationship between nature and nurture to show how young children’s early experiences affect the physical architecture of the developing brain. “What happens in early childhood is the foundation for everything society cares about,” Shonkoff said. “There’s a revolution in neuroscience, molecular biology and genetics. This revolution is sitting there waiting to be leveraged for innovation in how we deal with multiple problems.”
With supportive, loving relationships and language rich environments, young children’s brains lay down the wiring for later success. However, when young children experience “toxic stress” – from poverty, abuse or neglect, maternal depression, for example – their bodies remain at a constant level of high alert, rarely returning to a calmer baseline, leading to elevated levels of chemicals and other physiological reactions linked with later diabetes, heart disease and other health problems, as well as trouble learning in school. “Early life experiences,” Shonkoff said, “are literally built into our bodies, for better or worse.”
The brain can continue to create new connections throughout life, but its ability to change decreases with age. (See chart above) “This is neuroscience’s answer to why you can’t each an old dog new tricks,” Shonkoff said. “The cost of remediation goes up as the brain gets less plastic. And the end product is not as good…. Earlier is always better than later. Prevention is better than treatment. It’s never too late, but the best thing is to get it right the first time.”
In addition to PAES, the conference was sponsored by the Pew Center on the States, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Citizens Bank, the Manufacturing Institute and the Boston Business Journal.