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myFutureNC blog series: Babies, brain science, and the implications for attainment

North Carolina leaders are hearing one message loud and clear: When it comes to education—whether it’s higher education attainment or third-grade reading scores—the earlier you invest, the better the results.

Last month, John Taponga of ECONorthwest had a message for myFutureNC Commissioners, who are working to recommend a higher education attainment goal and a strategy for achieving it: If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, more has to go into birth through five. At the same meeting, David Mounts, chairman, and CEO of Inmar made a passionate speech calling out early childhood as the game changer. He emphasized that myFutureNC must begin with a focus on children’s earliest years.

Also in June, the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education devoted a day to better understanding child development and why the years from birth through age eight are a unique developmental continuum. The Commission is an outgrowth of the landmark Leandro v. State court case in which the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound, basic education.” In 2011, the court issued another groundbreaking ruling stating that birth to five early childhood education and programs were integral to ensuring the state’s “constitutional compliance” to the Leandro rulings. 

Stakeholders in the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative have a laser focus on children birth through age eight, recognizing that addressing the critical benchmark of third-grade reading proficiency begins at birth. They’ve established shared, whole-child measures – vetted by the thinking of hundreds of stakeholders across sectors, geography, and the political aisle – and are now finalizing a strategy for aligned action.

For those who may be struggling to understand how babies and baccalaureates are connected, consider the brain science. Last year, the Harvard University Center for the Developing Child made a jaw-dropping announcement. Researchers discovered that we had vastly underestimated the number of neural connections formed during the first few years of life. Rather than 700, the number was more than 1 MILLION neural connections… per second. 

Brain science has built an irrefutable case that children’s earliest experiences are built into their bodies, shaping their brain architecture. These experiences build the foundation for future learning—and they build the foundation for our state’s future as well.

Bottom line:  As the state seeks to set and meet a higher education attainment goal, ensure each child has access to a sound basic education, and support each child in reading at grade-level by the end of third grade, the starting point for success is the same – birth.

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by the Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Tracy Zimmerman

Tracy Zimmerman is the executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation.