A tide of recent research on early childhood development is inspiring prominent scientists and politicians to argue for an unprecedented investment in schooling that begins virtually at birth.

But as decades of academic studies on brain development start to land in the real world, experts are divided on whether to focus new funding on infants and toddlers, or conventional preschool. Many now think some policies popular with politicians and the public, such as universal prekindergarten, may fail to reach at-risk kids at a young enough age.

The scientific controversy also is spilling into the presidential contest, where the Democratic candidates have taken divergent positions on universal preschool and other early childhood issues.

Studies have suggested that intervening before children start preschool improves academic outcomes for low-income kids and may reduce the risk that they will end up in prison. Such interventions stem from the theory that experiences in the first five years of life set a lifelong course for brain development.

Chicago has become a national proving ground for schooling during the first three years and is home to prominent advocates such as Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, who said reaching kids before preschool could offer the best long-term economic return.

"Even at age 4 or 5, you may be starting too late," Heckman said. "I wouldn't say it's hopeless to help kids after those early years, but it's extremely expensive."

Backers of universal preschool say the evidence for even earlier intervention is not yet solid and offering conventional prekindergarten to everyone would help build popular support for early education.

In theory, starting to intervene soon after birth should help kids more because that's when experience starts to shape their brains, many experts said.

Children's brains change more between conception and kindergarten than at any other time. University of Chicago neuroscientist Peter Huttenlocher showed in studies over the last 30 years that connections between cells in most brain areas peak by age 3, then decline gradually as experiences mold the brain's circuitry.

The zero-to-3 period is not necessarily a magical and irreplaceable window for teaching children. But studies show that babies raised in poverty get fewer of the early experiences that spur vocabulary growth and good social judgment, making it harder for them to catch up later.

For example, toddlers whose parents speak more words to them develop bigger vocabularies than children who hear less speech, studies have found. One University of Kansas study concluded that kids from upper-income backgrounds hear 30 million more words by age 3 than those from poor families.

Early intervention with enrichment programs can narrow that gap, researchers and advocates say.

"The basic science of brain development says you need to start as early as possible for kids in the greatest danger to get the best outcomes," said Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, said he feared focusing on universal prekindergarten — making preschool a middle-class entitlement — could divert help from low-income families that need it most.

"Why would we use scarce public dollars to subsidize all families if we know the biggest impact is with poor kids?" he said.

Source: Detroit Free Press, United States