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Would you like a more than 7 to 1 return on investment?

Bill Crawford
Bill Crawford

What one thing could Mississippi do to have a more competitive workforce, a healthier population, more college graduates, fewer welfare mothers, better school performance, fewer special needs children, less drug usage and pay for itself seven times over?

Improve cognitive development in at-risk children right from birth.

Sound too good to be true?

Science says otherwise. It has to do with neurotransmitter changes (such as serotonin and dopamine levels), synaptic pruning as a function of experience, gene activation associated with experience, and social transactions.

Say what?

Well, cognitive development deals with fundamental brain skills that enable children to think, read, learn, remember, and pay attention. From these fundamental skills, children develop their capacities to speak, understand, calculate, interact, and deal with complex systems.

Long-term research has now shown two things conclusively: 1. Cognitive abilities get firmly set based on what happens to children during their first weeks and months after birth; and 2. Targeted early interventions can make a profound difference.

This research has been the life work of Drs. Craig and Sharon Ramey. Leaders in Meridian and other communities will remember the early childhood development work the Rameys did in Mississippi in the 1990s. At that time they were pioneering brain development research at the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Birmingham. Now distinguished research scholars and practitioners at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the Rameys have pulled together over 40 years of scientific research and tracking to irrefutably show that "cognitive disabilities can be prevented in early childhood."

They presented their findings last week at the first of a series of presentations sponsored by the University of Mississippi Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. Entitled "Investing in High Quality Early Childhood Education Yields Economic Returns," the series will also feature Dr. James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago, whose analysis shows the economic returns, and Dr. Pat Levitt, WM Keck Provost Professor of Neurogenetics at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, whose research shows how genes and environment together influence typical and atypical brain development.

Significant impacts for early interventions include leveling the playing field in educational performance for at-risk children, improving their college going rates by four to one, reducing their use of public assistance by five to one, and improving their average earnings by 50 percent.

The cost-benefit analysis by Dr. Heckman of these targeted interventions showed a 7.3 to 1 return on investment by adulthood.

"The health, education, and well-being of children forecast the future of communities and states," said Dr. Craig Ramey. "If we don't get a significant sector of the population started early, it is hard to make a difference later."

So, Mississippi do we want to grow a more productive workforce, smarter kids, and more college graduates while reducing welfare dependence, school retention, and special needs demands? These are real outcomes that would lift Mississippi off the bottom of so many national rankings.

Science is telling us what to do and that the economic payback will be terrific.

Are we in or out?

To read about the research visit goo.gl/6DDHbS.

To learn more about upcoming speakers contact Dr. Cathy Grace at cwgrace@olemiss.edu.

Bill Crawford is syndicated columnist from Meridian