Latin America focuses on early learning

Photo caption: A teacher talks to a little boy on April 26, 2010, in Constitucion, Chile. (Claudio Santana/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile has often been called a model economy for Latin America because of its stability and high growth rates. Now, its also got a model for early childhood development programs.

Experts from Harvard have set up shop in the country to study and help perfect the Chilean system. Other countries are asking Chile for assistance in setting up their own version of the program.

Under former President Michelle Bachelet, who made universal access to early childhood development her emblematic project, the country built on average an astounding 2.5 preschools per day across the country, increasing from 781 state-built preschools to 4,300.

“Chile’s program is setting the standard for developing countries,” said Sergio Urzua, a Chilean economics professor at Northwestern University who has studied closely the initiative. “We know from studies that money invested well in early childhood has greater long-term impacts than even investments in higher education.”

Chile is an exceptional case. Bachelet is a former pediatrician, a single mother of three and a socialist who focused on ramping up social protection programs. But a powerful array of economists, scientists, celebrities, businessmen and diverse others are also among a growing worldwide movement for early education.

Last November at the annual Ibero-American Summit held in Portugal, the pop singer Shakira and renowned development economist Jeffrey Sachs successfully lobbied for greater attention to the issue.

Five Latin American heads of state (from Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Panama) openly endorsed their proposal to ensure that all children under 6 in Latin America have access to early childhood development programs by 2020.

Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said she would put early childhood development high on the agenda of the 2010 Ibero-American Summit, which will be held in Buenos Aires in November.

The Colombia-born Shakira in particular is a world-beater on this issue.

In 2006, Shakira co-founded the Panama-based foundation ALAS (in English, the acronym stands for Latin America in Solidarity Action), which unites Latino singers, artists and business leaders such as actress Jennifer Lopez and writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez around early childhood development in Latin America, a region in which an estimated 60 percent of children live in poverty.

Last year, Shakira and ALAS convinced Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and Howard Buffett (a son of American billionaire Warren Buffett) to pledge $185 million for early childhood development projects in the region.

ALAS also partnered with Jeffrey Sachs and his Earth Institute at Columbia University to develop a regional strategy. Last August, the two groups launched the Secretariat of Early Childhood Development for Latin America and the Caribbean, which will coordinate international technical assistance to help governments create high quality early childhood programs.

Shakira and Sachs said in separate interviews that throughout 2010 ALAS will work to create “early childhood development councils” in governments across Latin America and lobby for concrete measures at the Buenos Aires summit.

“The Portugal summit was tremendously important. For too long early childhood has been ignored in Latin America," said Shakira. “But the next summit is going to be especially key in getting a regional alliance in motion, and to get governments to make commitments.”

At the age of 18, Shakira diverted much of the money she was rapidly making from her budding music career into starting up the Barefoot Foundation, which has built six schools for thousands of poor children displaced by civil war in Colombia.

Shakira said that she has seen firsthand "that most of the kids that are born poor die poor unless an opportunity arises that breaks that cycle.”

Sachs said in a phone interview that they need to begin the work of “scaling up” programs that integrate preschool education with proper health care and nutrition.

“The evidence is overwhelming that if a child is left in a deprived environment there are serious negative consequences later in life for the individual and society. Investing in human capital, especially at an early age, also helps close the gap between rich and poor.”

Added Sachs: “Despite its wealth, the U.S. is leaving an incredible number of children to miserable conditions. One in five kids in the U.S. are growing up in poverty so we need this same kind of effort in the U.S.”

Early childhood advocates cite an increasing number of studies that demonstrate the broad value of early childhood development.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has quantified that pre-school education for disadvantaged children results in at least a 10 percent annual return for society by improving performance in school, reducing crime and teenage pregnancies, and boosting employment prospects later in life.

Work by Harvard's Jack Shonkoff has found that depriving poor children of access to good health care, nutrition and education during their first three years increases the likelihood they'll suffer from disease, learning difficulties and poverty. Such findings are based in part on studies that show that humans develop 80 percent of their brain in the first three years of life, making nutrition and proper mental stimulation critical during this period.

Chile’s early education initiative is one part of a wider initiative called Chile Crece Contigo (“Chile Grows With You”) in which Chileans who participate in the public schools — about 70 percent of Chilean children — are steered toward this free, state system in which day care, preschools, family counseling and health services are integrated from pregnancy until children turn 4.

Maria Estela Ortiz, who heads Chile’s National Early Education Board, said investing in children takes on even greater urgency during economic downturns, when both parents are forced to work and fewer have money for school.

“It's making an enormous impact,” said Ortiz.