Photo: Micaela Bedell For Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell For Strategies for Children

Early childhood is getting new attention from the 4th Annual Healthy People/Healthy Economy Report Card.

“The annual report card examines progress in 12 issue areas that can be linked to improvements in public health,” according to a news release from the Boston Foundation, a member of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition, which released the report.

“Research continues to show that high quality early childhood care and education not only prepare children for success in school, they create a foundation for good health over the course of a lifetime,” the report says, adding, “Children who receive good care and education in their preschool years gain as much as a full year of development and educational growth compared to children entering school without the benefit of early services.”

“Expanding early childhood education has been a key piece of education discussions this year, but we know its impact isn’t limited to academics,” Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, said in the news release. Grogan is also co-chair of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition.

Launched in 2010, the coalition’s mission is “to make Massachusetts the preeminent state in the country for health and wellness.” In addition to the Boston Foundation, the coalition includes NEHI (the Network for Excellence in Healthcare Innovation), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other stakeholders.

The report gives Massachusetts a grade of Incomplete on early childhood. Since this is the first year it has included an early childhood category, the Coalition is delaying awarding a grade until it learns how and if the recommendations are implemented.

The other areas that the report grades include: healthy school meals, which got a grade of B; youth physical activity, grade D; smart growth and healthy transportation planning, B+; primary care, B+; and public health funding, D.

Early Childhood in Massachusetts

The report says that the state spends “about $200 million less today on early childhood education than it did in FY 2001, a decrease of more than 16 percent over 14 years after adjusting for inflation.”

And while the need for early education and care has grown, this need “has been difficult to meet and quality early childhood education is lacking, especially for at-risk children in low-income families.”

Massachusetts is, however, taking key steps to improve. The report points to the establishment of the Department of Early Education and Care in 2005 and the state’s efforts to offer universal pre-kindergarten to young children.

The report also calls for more action on nutrition and physical activity, saying the state “has not established any nutritional requirements for licensed early childhood care centers.”

In addition: “Nutrition and physical activity standards have been overlooked as areas for improvement and regulatory or policy change in child care and early childhood education, at least until recently. About 14 percent of Massachusetts children enter kindergarten overweight, and by first grade nearly 30 percent of them are overweight or obese. These children are four times more likely to be obese by the 8th grade than children of normal weight.”

Earning a Better Grade

Encouraging Massachusetts to earn a better grade for its early childhood efforts, the report points to best practices identified by researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. These include:

The report also points to strong early childhood programs in Boston, Connecticut, and Oklahoma.

“Research continues to show that investment in childhood health and education may be the single most significant effective way to reduce health problems over the course of a lifetime,” the report says. “Massachusetts now needs to move on more concrete plans to extend quality early childhood education to all 4-year-old children. Additionally, policies should be put in place that establish standards for nutrition, physical activity, and screen time for our youngest and most vulnerable population.”