Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation -- Executive Director's Message

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Message from the Executive Director


James Heckman, one of America's top economists studying human development has again powerfully demonstrated the remarkable power of public and private investments in high quality early education. Recently, he developed a chart showing the results of elaborate cognitive tests that were first performed in the 1980's on several hundred low-birth weight 3-year olds who were then retested at ages 5, 8 and 18. Children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than mothers who were high school dropouts. Children living in richer linguistic homes and stimulating environments were far ahead of their lower-income peers. More significantly, the difference in cognitive performance was just as large at age 18 as it had been age 3. The devastating cognitive and social-emotional gap present at age 3 is, in fact, not substantially reduced by subsequent educational interventions. Thus, if education is, as Americans have long hoped, intended to redress economic inequalities at birth and improve the life chances of disadvantaged children as they mature, it is not doing the job.

This study is just one of many we now have access to. One study by Heckman and Flavio Cunha of the University of Pennsylvania found that the gap in math abilities between rich and poor children was not much different at age 12 than it was at age 6. American students from upper income backgrounds are scored an average 110 points higher on reading tests than disadvantaged children. These repeating patterns explain, clearly, much of the reason for income inequality which all too frequently passed on from one generation to the next. This intransigent problem has deeply frustrated Americans who realize that the 5.5% of the nation's economic output spent by government on education at all levels is not having the social and economic consequences we had hoped for. Yet much of the current debate on "what is wrong with our schools and colleges" has focused on everything from the role of unions to the role of vouchers, school choice and standardized testing and not on where our investments will have the greatest returns. Much educational debate has also focused on improving college instruction, increasing access to quality higher education through higher federal subsidies, and the questioning of lax accreditation standards.

But the economics of education seem clear: investment in high quality early education, especially for low-income children, brings the highest returns of any form of educational investment. It improves not only children's cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits such as sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Numerous studies that have followed children through their adult lives confirm large payoffs, whether measured in improved college enrollment and success, income levels and even lower incarceration rates.

What seems almost obvious is that the costs or not making these investments are painful. Julia Isaacs, a research specialist in child policy at the Urban Institute, finds that more than half of poor 5-year-olds don't have math, reading or behavioral skills needed for school-readiness by kindergarten. As long as children keep arriving in kindergarten with substantial cognitive and social-emotional developmental gaps no amount of money invested later in the educational continuum will make much difference. No amount of increase in Pell grants for college-bound students will do much to increase readiness by low-income students and improved access, however achieved, will likely lead to continued high college dropout rates.

The evidence from the economics of education compels our attention. Heckman and Cunha estimate that raising high school graduation rates of most disadvantaged children to 64% from 41% would cost 35% to 50% more if the assistance arrived in their teens rather than before they turned 6. As Erick Hanushek, a Stanford economists as succinctly put it, "We are subsidizing the wrong people and in the wrong way."

Frustratingly, despite the growing research and public awareness of the importance of the early years, public spending on higher education is more than three times as large as spending on preschool, according to O.E.C.D. data from 2009. And in 2008 federal and state spending spent somewhat more than $10,000 per child in kindergarten through grade 12. By contrast, 3-5-year old children got less than $5,000 for their education and care. Children under 3 got $300. The data repeatedly confirms what the public may be ready to acknowledge: Standardized test scores in math have improved only marginally from 1970 to 2000 even as spending per pupil has doubled. Scores in reading and science have by many measures declined. Thus, education, long portrayed in the American narrative as a great leveler has not realized its promise and income inequality has eroded the American dream of fairness, equal opportunity and upward mobility. Education cannot do its job if it leaves so many behind so early.

Realizing the above, the trustees of the Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation have, in recent years, phased out support for education for students above age 8. We continue to work hard to partner with local and national foundations and state and federal agencies to improve outcomes for children, especially the children of low-income families. Our grants have improved quality by encouraging accreditation for centers, supported scholarships for those seeking degrees in early education, funded access to high quality preschool experiences for low-income families state-wide, supported innovative teacher training and professional development, funded curricular advancement and supported the capital improvements necessary to provide children a stimulating and safe physical environment in center-based schools. With the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, our sister foundation the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the Atherton Foundation and Kamehameha Schools, we have funded the pilot pre-k-grade 12 education continuum which seeks to make the transition from pre-school to the K-12 a seamless one. We continue to invest in pre-school director level professional development through our state-wide Castle Colleagues program while working with teacher training centers in improving teacher-child interactions in the classroom. Moreover, we work closely with the Governor's Office of Early Learning and work to increase public awareness about the importance of the early years. Our President, Dr. Robert Peters, serves as co-chair of the Governor's Early Learning Advisory Board and I serve as the philanthropy representative on ELAB. We also work to support federal policy supportive of early education through my work with the Early Childhood Education Funders Collaborative in Washington, DC.

In 2014, we will work with the Chamber of Commerce, the Hawaii Business Roundtable, education and philanthropy leaders, advocates and families to advocate for the passage of a constitutional amendment in Hawaii which will allow, for the first time, public investments in early education. We have much to do and far too limited time and money to accomplish our ambitious goals for children and families in our state. But our long historical legacy compels us to act boldly and aggressively even as our donor and founder Mary Tenney Castle did in pioneering kindergartens in Hawaii. Our proud past must be prologue to our future.

Alfred L. Castle
Executive Director and Treasurer
January 1, 2014