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Fall 2005 | Volume 3, Issue 2

Early Childhood Education: Investing in Quality Makes SenseWith about 60 percent of American children under age 5 spending part of their dayin care outside the home, many policymakers seem to be jumping on the earlychildhood education bandwagon. Most states now fund or are creating preschoolprograms, many have developed learning standards for young children,1 and it isbecoming widely accepted that high-quality early childhood education enhancesschool readiness and reduces racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

EssentialInformation forEducation Policy

Published by the American Educational Research Association

That is all good. But before students andsociety can fully reap the rewards of earlyeducation, policymakers need to know whereto direct their efforts. In designing high-qualityearly childhood programs, many importantchoices need to be made, such as decidingwhether to provide universal care or to targetservices to the most vulnerable youngsters;how much time is needed in preschool (i.e.,what age to start, how many years it shouldlast, and whether it should be full day or halfday); and what kind of follow-up might beneeded in “regular school.”

The first step in making such decisions isknowing what makes a program “high quality.”Research suggests that the most effectiveprograms are center based — preschools,nursery schools, learning centers, and thelike. Center-based care does not encompassprograms operating out of a caregiver’s homeor programs involving only caregiver visits toa child’s home.

Effective Early Childhood ProgramsStrong evidence pointing to the benefits ofhigh-quality early childhood education, andhow to achieve them, comes from carefullyconducted short- and long-term studies.2 Thestudies compared school and life outcomesfor participants in the program to those of arandomly selected control group of childrenwho did not participate.

Although the programs varied in duration,the age at which care began, the curricula used,the characteristics of the families and children,and some of the social and health services pro-vided, the results are remarkably similar. At-risk children who participate in high-quality,center-based programs have better languageand cognitive skills in the first few years ofelementary school than do similar children whodid not have such experiences. They tend toscore higher on math and reading tests, andthey are less likely to repeat a grade, drop out ofschool, need special education or remedial

services, or get into trouble with the law in the future. Theyalso tend to complete more years of education and aremore likely to attend a four-year college. These and otherstudies also found the most significant benefits accruedto low-income and minority children and those whosemothers had a high school education or less.3

One of the longest-running and best-known studies ofpreschool found that children who attended the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, MI, fourdecades ago continue to be more law-abiding, earnhigher incomes, and have more stable home lives thansimilar adults who were not enrolled in the program.

Because of such positive results, experts agree thatinvestments in high-quality early childhood educationmake financial sense. Economic analyses show that suchprograms have stronger and longer-lasting effects thanalternative options such as remediation, class size reduc-tions, and programs that start later in life. In addition,every $1 invested generates a return to society ofanywhere from $3 to more than $17 because of reducedspecial education costs, less grade repetition, higher adultearnings, more tax revenues, reduced crime rates (whichproduce the greatest savings), and other benefits.4

It must be noted, though, that most of these long-termeffects stem from relatively small-scale, intensive modelprograms, designed and conducted by experts who didnot face the challenge of selecting, training, and oversee-ing large numbers of teachers and centers. These pro-grams typically incorporate best practices such aslanguage-rich, developmentally appropriate education;highly trained teachers; and low child-staff ratios.

Scaling Up High-Quality PreschoolAlthough the best early childhood education resultsare seen in center-based programs, all center-basedprograms are not top notch. Low-quality programs canbe found in affluent and middle-class communities, andsome children in poor communities have access to verygood preschools, although subpar programs most oftenaffect our most vulnerable children.5

In an effort to cast a wider net, Oklahoma haslaunched a landmark program offering preschool to all4-year-olds in the state.6 The program emphasizes highquality in part by requiring lead teachers to have a collegedegree and early childhood certification, as well as byguaranteeing teacher pay rates equivalent to thosereceived by other public school teachers. A study of the

program’s impact on school readiness found four- toseven-month gains in premath, prewriting, and preread-ing skills, above and beyond the normal gains that comewith getting older. Improvements were seen in all ethnicgroups, with the highest for Latino children.

Although Oklahoma’s gains surpass those of HeadStart,7 the far larger federally sponsored preschool pro-gram started in 1965, they fall short of results generated bythe smaller model programs. Nevertheless, the Oklahomaefforts, along with those in five other states,8 show that it ispossible to incorporate many of the hallmarks of high-quality child care in a scaled-up effort that reaches thou-sands of children and produce commensurate effects.

Ready for Regular SchoolResearch has found that investments in high-quality earlychildhood education can increase readiness for school andprovide long-term social benefits, particularly for low-income and minority children and those whose parentshave little education. Highly effective preparation forformal schooling is vital to shrinking the sizable academicgaps that already exist for these students when they enterkindergarten. According to one report, about half the testscore gap between black and white high school students isevident when children start school.9

Much of the policy debate, and most research, focuseson the academic skills children need to start school. Thefederal No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes literacy andmath skills, while reauthorization bills for Head Start callfor the development of education performance standards.Similarly, the National Research Council recommends thatall states draft content standards for the early years thataddress areas often omitted from early childhood pro-grams,10 including phonological awareness (understandingthe sounds that make up words), number concepts,methods of scientific investigation, and culturalknowledge and language.

While children with weak academic skills predictablystruggle in school, children who cannot sit still, are disrup-tive in class, or otherwise show poor self-regulation alsoare at greater risk of juvenile delinquency and other prob-lems later in life. Fully preparing children for schoolinvolves addressing a broad range of social and emotionalneeds. Therefore, high-quality preschool programs mustattend to both academic and social skills.

The National Education Goals Panel recognized theimportance of nonacademic skills in 1997 when it cited

Research Points | Fall 2005 | Page 2

continued on page 4

Benefits of High-Quality Preschool

Facts at a Glance

4 High-quality early childhood programsproduce children with better schoolreadiness skills and yield substantial long-term benefits, including higher graduationrates, fewer school dropouts, less need forspecial education, and less crime.

4 The most effective preschool programs arecenter-based and offer a curriculum that isboth intellectually rich and broad enoughto meet children’s social and emotionaldevelopment needs.

Research Points | Fall 2005 | Page 3

More Success in the Education System

Oklahoma kindergarten students who completed the state’shigh-quality preschool program show higher gains in tests ofletter-word identification, spelling, and applied problemscompared to other students. Hispanic and black studentsenjoyed marked improvement in all three areas.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project is the only randomized trial ofchild care with a longitudinal follow-up to adulthood. Althoughthe program has a somewhat modest positive impact on long-term cognitive measures of student achievement, it significantlyenhances progress in later academic efforts.

Source: Barnett, W.S., Masse, L.N. (in press). “Comparative Benefit-Cost Analysisof the Abecedarian Program and Its Policy Implications.” Economics ofEducation Review.

Source: Gormley, W.T., et al. ( 2004). The Effects of Oklahoma’s UniversalPre-K Program on School Readiness: An Executive Summary. Washington,DC: Center for Research on Children in the United States, GeorgetownUniversity.

Improved School Readiness

Race/Ethnicity of Oklahoma Students






















High school graduationby age 19




66% 67%




Abecedarian Students

Other Students











Letter-Word Identification


Applied Problems

WhiteNative American














five categories of learning and development that must beaddressed so that all children can start school ready tolearn: physical well-being and motor development; socialand emotional development; positive approaches tolearning; language development and communicationskills; and cognition and general knowledge.11

ConclusionToday, nearly four out of five states invest in preschoolprograms. However, states’ financial commitment to earlychildhood education, their eligibility requirements, and thenumber of children who actually receive care vary widely,making high-quality and readily available state-fundedpreschool programs the exception rather than the rule.12

Research shows that high-quality, center-basedprograms include two major components:

A rich curriculum. The best early childhood pro-grams emphasize language, emergent literacy, andearly mathematics skills; motor, social, and emotionaldevelopment; health and nutrition services; struc-tured and unstructured play; and typically, parentinvolvement and education. While no single curricu-lum or pedagogical approach works for everyone,all young children tend to learn more and be betterprepared for formal schooling when they attendwell-planned, high-quality preschools in which cur-ricular aims are specified and delivered. A responsive and well-educated staff. One ofthe strongest predictors of high-quality early learn-ing programs is the preparation and compensationof teachers and their responsiveness and sensitivityto the children in their care, which can be affectedby teacher-child staffing ratios. The NationalResearch Council recommends assigning at leastone teacher with a bachelor’s degree and special-ized education in early childhood to each group ofchildren.

Early childhood programs that incorporate thosefeatures have been found to yield substantial, long-termbenefits to the children and to society at large, includinghigher academic achievement, higher graduation rates,and less criminal activity. Despite the positive results,even significant academic effects tend to diminish overtime, especially if children end up in poor-quality ele-mentary and high schools. Programs that follow chil-dren into elementary school and offer more intensiveearly intervention can help to sustain long-termacademic benefits.

Research Points | Fall 2005 | Page 4

1) National Governors Association (2005).Building the Foundation for Bright Futures. Wash-ington, DC: NGA.

2) See Campbell, F.A., Ramey, C.T. (1995).“Cognitive and School Outcomes for High-RiskAfrican-American Students at Middle Adolescence:Positive Effects of Early Intervention. AmericanEducational Research Journal, Vol. 32, pp. 743– 772.Campbell, F.A., et al. (2002). “Early Childhood Edu-cation: Young Adult Outcomes from the Abecedari-an Project. Applied Developmental Science, Vol. 6,pp. 42–57. Reynolds, A.J. (2000). Success in EarlyIntervention: The Chicago Child-Parent Centers.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Reynolds,A.J. (Ed.) (1999). “Schooling and High-Risk Popula-tions: The Chicago Longitudinal Study,” Journal ofSchool Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 4. Special Issue.Schweinhart, L.J. (February 2005). “The High/ScopePerry Preschool Study Through Age 40: Summary,Conclusions, and Frequently Asked Questions.”Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational ResearchFoundation. Brooks-Gunn, J. (2004). “Interventionand Policy as Change Agents for Young Children.” InP.L. Chase-Lansdale, K. Kiernan, and R.J. Friedman(Eds.) Human Development Across Lives and Gen-erations. New York: Cambridge University, pp.293–340. Brooks, Gunn, J. (2003). “Do You Believe inMagic? What We Can Expect From Early ChildhoodIntervention Programs.” SRCD Social Policy Report,Vol. 17, pp. 3–14.

3) Hill, J.L., Brooks-Gunn, J., Waldfogel, J.(2003). “Sustained Effects of High Participation inan Early Intervention for Low-Birth-Weight Prema-ture Infants,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39,No. 4, pp. 730–744.

4) See Heckman, J., Masterov, D.V. (2004). “TheProductivity Argument for Investing in Young Chil-dren,” Working Paper 5, Invest in Kids WorkingGroup. New York: Committee for Economic Devel-opment. Barnett, W.S., Masse, L.N. (in press). “Com-parative Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Abecedarian

Program and Its Policy Implications.” Economics ofEducation Review.

5) NICHD Early Child Care Research Network(2002). “Early Child Care and Children’s Develop-ment Prior to School Entry: Results from NICHDStudy of Early Child Care.” American EducationalResearch Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 133–164.

6) Gormley, W.T., et al. (2005). “The Effects ofUniversal Pre-K on Cognitive Development.” Devel-opmental Psychology, Vol. 41, No. 6.

7) U.S. Department of Health and Human Ser-vices, Administration for Children and Families(May 2005). Head Start Impact Study: First YearFindings. Washington, DC.

8) Barnett, W.S., Lamy, C., Jung, K. (2005). TheEffects of State Prekindergarten Programs onYoung Children’s School Readiness in Five States.New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for EarlyEducation Research, Rutgers University.

9) Phillips, M., Crouse, J., Ralph, J. (1998).“Does the Black-White Test Score Gap Widen afterChildren Enter School?” In C. Jencks and M. Phillips(Eds.) The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington,DC: Brookings Institution.

10) Bowman, B., Donovan, S., Burns, S. (Eds.)(2001). Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschool-ers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

11) National Education Goals Panel (1995).Reconsidering Children’s Early Development andLearning: Toward Common Views and Vocabu-lary. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.See also National Education Goals Panel (1997).Special Early Childhood Report. Washington, DC:Government Printing Office.

12) Barnett, W.S., et al. (2004). The State ofPreschool: 2004 State Preschool Yearbook. NewBrunswick, NJ: The National Institutes for EarlyEducation Research, Rutgers University.


Editor: Lauren B. Resnick

Managing Editor: Chris Zurawsky

Issue Researcher: Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

Issue Reviewers: W. Steven Barnett,Ron Haskins, Arthur J. Reynolds

Issue Writer: Lynn Olson

Editorial Board: Eva Baker, DavidCohen, Susan Fuhrman, EdmundGordon, Lorrie Shepard, Catherine Snow

AERA Executive Director: Felice J. Levine

American Educational ResearchAssociation1230 17th Street, NWWashington, DC 20036phone (202) 223-9485 fax (202) 775-1824

Research Points is published in accordance with AERA review standards; itscontents do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of the Association.

Copyright © 2005 by American Educational Research Association



What Should Policymakers Do? First, provide access to high-quality early childhood programs to

the most vulnerable children because of their greater need and thehigher return on the public’s investment.

Second, pay attention to quality by developing state standards forearly childhood programs, including content standards that addresswhat young children should know and be able to do.

Third, improve the education and compensation of early child-hood educators by requiring preschool teachers to have a four-yearcollege degree and specialized training.

Fourth, closely monitor early childhood education programs asthey expand to make sure quality is maintained.

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