Early Childhood Care and Education is a Good Investment

USAID’s 2013 Global Education Summit highlights early learning

Last week, I attended USAID’s 2013 Global Education Summit. The summit is a great opportunity for international education experts to share and discuss outcomes and good practices of USAID’s education work around the globe. USAID’s goals include (i) improved reading skills, (ii) strengthened tertiary and workforce development, and (iii) equitable access to education in crisis and conflict environments.

Although early childhood care and education (ECCE) is not one of USAID’s education strategy goals, a number of key note speakers and summit presenters reported that ECCE plays a key role in school readiness, school achievement, and school completion.  As Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, said in his address:

“We’re also focused, like never before, on the impact of early learning and care—and the crucial stages from pre-literacy to literacy. Research shows that quality early learning opportunities translate to individual success in both school and life, and have great civic and economic benefits for communities. President Obama has put forward an ambitious plan that—in partnership with our states—would provide for high-quality preschool for every four-year old. We have to stop playing catch-up, and level the playing field for our children before they start kindergarten.”

Early childhood education is key

This is supported by research of Nobel Prize winning Economics Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago.  Heckman’s research demonstrates that the quality of early childhood development (ECD) heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and the society at large. In short: Investing in ECD produces enormous economic gains. According to Heckman, ECD has even a higher rate of return per dollar invested than interventions directed at older children and adults. Heckman also developed the equation, which summarizes his findings in a concise and elegant manner:  Invest + develop + sustain = gains.

The research and evidence on ECCE raises an important question: Should USAID continue to support programs that focus exclusively on primary school?  Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) research has shown that large numbers of students are not learning to read within the first two or three years of schooling. In some countries, 70% to 90% of students tested after three years of schooling were unable to correctly read a single word within the first line of a simple paragraph.

How can children who complete grade 1 or 2 from low-income countries read or comprehend sentences in their national language or mother tongue if they have developmental delays until age 6 in physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional areas and have little exposure to printed materials or books?

The evidence indicates that ECCE is one of the smartest investments for governments and donors to make.  During the early years, children have the greatest opportunity to develop skills that will lead to greater achievements later in life.  Unfortunately, most countries invest too little in expanding and scaling up of affordable ECCE programs for poor children in low–and middle-income countries that need it the most.  I am hoping the dialog and exchanges that occurred at the summit will encourage governments, development partners, civil society, and foundations to have a serious conversation about prioritizing ECCE within a country’s developmental agenda.


Gove, A. and P. Cvelich. 2011. Early Reading: Igniting Education for All. A report by the Early Grade Learning Community of Practice. Revised Edition.

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