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Sustaining early childhood education gains

Research findings discussed during a 2015 conference at the Minneapolis Fed show there are levers available to keep the benefits of early learning programs going into later school years.

February 25, 2016


Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
Sustaining early childhood education gains

Early childhood education is receiving growing attention at the federal and state levels. In December, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes $250 million in preschool development grants to help states and communities prepare low-income children for kindergarten. The fiscal year 2016 congressional appropriations bill includes $1 billion in new money for early childhood programs. Among states in the Ninth Federal Reserve District, legislatures in Michigan and Minnesota passed considerable increases in funding for early learning programs during the past two years.

This growing attention coincides with research published over the past decade showing that the first few years of life are a sensitive child-development period with lifelong implications. Children who have developmental support from their families and communities are more likely to arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed in school than children who are subjected to excessive stress, such as growing up in poverty or being exposed to violence in their homes.

Since 2003, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota have cosponsored four conferences on early childhood development. The first two explored the economic implications of investing in early childhood development and issues in evaluating the cost effectiveness of early investments, while the third considered the linkages between health and education during the early years.

On October 8–9, 2015, the Minneapolis Fed and the Human Capital Research Collaborative (HCRC) at the University of Minnesota held the fourth conference, Sustaining Early Childhood Gains, at the Minneapolis Fed. This article draws on the discussion and research presented there.

Investments in early learning have the promise to buffer early stressors and close achievement gaps between children from advantaged environments and those from disadvantaged environments. Federal, state, and local governments as well as philanthropic organizations fund a variety of early health and education programs, such as maternal and child home visiting programs, and provide access to child care and preschool. Recent funding has also emphasized boosting program quality and accountability.

While some long-term studies have demonstrated that a range of benefits from early learning programs continues into adulthood, results from recent studies show that positive effects dropped off within a few years. In light of the recent findings, and with new investments emerging (and the potential for even more, since there are still long waiting lists for eligible children and families), policymakers are concerned about sustaining the benefits from early learning programs into children’s school-age years and beyond.

Fortunately, as recent research discussed at the Sustaining Early Childhood Gains conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Human Capital Research Collaborative in October 2015 shows,1  policymakers and practitioners have levers available to sustain early childhood gains. These include the dosage and quality of early learning programs and elementary schooling, the transition path between early learning programs and kindergarten, and the tools families and communities have to support early development. Applying the levers is a multi-disciplinary and multi-location effort, and further research can shed light on the policy and program characteristics that best support it.

A drop-off in benefits?

Prominent studies of early childhood education, including those on the Perry Preschool in Michigan, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers,2  demonstrate that a high-quality early learning program targeted to children from disadvantaged environments can help children make gains, with benefits extending well into adulthood. Benefits include lower social costs, such as lower crime costs; and higher school achievement, educational attainment, and earnings. Average societal rates of return range from 7 percent to about 20 percent annually.

Investments in early learning have the promise to buffer early stressors and close achievement gaps between children from advantaged environments and those from disadvantaged environments.

However, two recent studies show a different pattern of findings. Results from a 2012 impact study of the Head Start early childhood education program show that children randomly assigned to attend Head Start initially made gains in language, math, and social-emotional skills from one or two years of attendance, but by first and third grade, their assessment results were similar to those of children in the control group. Similarly, results of a 2015 evaluation of the State of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program show that initial gains on cognitive and social-emotional skill assessments had dissipated by third grade. While there are concerns about the construction of the study sample in the Tennessee evaluation, these two studies have raised questions about the sustainability of early childhood gains after children enter elementary school.

Dosage and quality

Early education researchers, including those who gathered at the Sustaining Early Childhood Gains conference, generally agree that if children get off to a strong start in an early learning program, benefits will be more likely to last into elementary school and beyond. And an important factor for successful early learning programs is the dosage, or the amount of time children attend them. Some children attend full-day for five days per week, others half-day for two or three days per week. Also, some programs enroll children from infancy through preschool, while some enroll only for a child’s pre-kindergarten year.

“In general, the effects are greater for children attending full-day than half-day programs …. However, there is a big qualifier, that quality matters,” said Barbara A. Wasik, professor in early childhood at Temple University, in her conference remarks. “You cannot talk about dosage separate from content and quality.” In terms of duration, she noted that the first year of attendance in an early learning program has a larger effect than a second year in the program, although attending for more than one year has a larger cumulative effect than attending for less than one year. Furthermore, Wasik noted that intended dosage is almost always more than what is received, and that more consistent child attendance has been found to be associated with higher achievement.

In terms of quality, many early childhood researchers are working on identifying the characteristics of early learning programs that lead to positive child outcomes. However, Greg Camilli, a professor at Rutgers University who teaches research methods, pointed out that isolating the impact of particular program elements, such as teaching quality or teacher qualifications, is difficult. As an example, he noted that while research has shown that teachers are positively related to child outcomes, it has yet to reveal the specific characteristics of teachers that matter most to student learning.

Nevertheless, fellow Sustaining Early Childhood Gains participants were able to point to programs associated with strong child outcomes and highlight some of their important and common characteristics. Greg Duncan, professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, highlighted Boston Pre-K, which combines proven curricula with “strong professional development, including coaching.” The cost of Boston Pre-K is about $12,000 per child, considerably more than most state-funded preschool programs. Evaluation results show strong gains across language, literacy, and math skills, as well as positive spillover effects on executive function skills (working memory and inhibitory control). “The key building block for success, I think, was a strong implementation of proven literacy and math curricula,” Duncan said.

Sharon and Craig Ramey, professors at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and primary investigators of research on the Abecedarian Project, noted in their conference paper that successful programs, at a minimum, all had “strong and deeply knowledgeable leadership, a clear theory that guided their implementation of the program and was directly linked to potential benefits for the children, strong professional development and training for their frontline staff, and an active accountability system that measured [the progress of] both the program and the children.3 

A theme echoed by a number of researchers is the importance of supporting language development in early childhood, which creates a foundation for children to learn and is associated with future success in school and even into adulthood. Frances Campbell, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reported that for the Abecedarian Project, which provided high-quality full-day early learning from infancy through preschool, enhanced verbal skills are associated with higher levels of children’s test performance and better academic skills and account for the program’s most enduring effect on adult functioning.

“Early enhancement of verbal skills. I think that is really the take-home message here,” Campbell said.

Larry Schweinhart, president emeritus of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, noted that gains in IQ scores of children who attended Perry Preschool (relative to control group children) dissipated by age 10. Nonetheless, many other education and adult outcomes were better for children who attended Perry. An analysis to identify which effects of the Perry Preschool had the largest impact on long-term benefits shows that the early advantage in cognitive achievement likely served as a mediator, or primary influencing factor, for subsequent positive outcomes.

“It’s the ability to affect the next phase, it’s the ability to be a mediator. That’s much more important than whether that particular skill consistently scores higher later on,” Schweinhart said.

Arthur Reynolds, co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota, reported that across three longitudinal studies (Perry, Abecedarian, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers), early cognitive achievement at age 5 supports achievement motivation at ages 5 and 6, which leads to stronger school achievement by age 14. Social-emotional attributes, such as motivation and self-regulation, also emerge as factors that help children perform better in early learning programs and school classrooms.

Transitioning to kindergarten

For children who’ve attended an early learning program, the transition to kindergarten can affect how well benefits continue into early grades. Sustaining early gains may be difficult if the experiences and cognitive and social expectations of the early learning program are notably different from those of the kindergarten classroom.

Andrew Mashburn, associate professor of applied developmental psychology at Portland State University in Oregon, studies preschool-to-kindergarten transition issues by considering how children’s experiences in kindergarten classrooms affect retention of gains from Head Start. Mashburn uses data from the 2012 Head Start Impact Study mentioned above, which measured children’s experiences within the variety of kindergarten classrooms they attended after Head Start.

Mashburn’s preliminary analysis of the interaction between experiences in Head Start and in subsequent kindergarten classrooms suggests that consistency between early learning programs and kindergarten may have an impact in kindergarten on children’s math development and on certain measures of social skills. “Consistency of experiences seems to relate to more positive outcomes for children during kindergarten,” he said.

A theme echoed by a number of researchers is the importance of supporting language development in early childhood, which creates a foundation for children to learn and is associated with future success in school and even into adulthood.

According to Arthur Reynolds, who also serves as the principal investigator of the Child-Parent Center (CPC) Midwest Expansion project (which is in place in selected school districts in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), “We need high-quality preschool plus the synergy ‘P-3’ continuity can bring—partly to sustain the gain from preschool, but also to add to those gains so we can get closer to eliminating the achievement gap.” Key elements of the CPC model (which includes preschool, for ages 3 and 4, through grade three in a public school) include collaborative leadership, aligned curricula, continuity and stability for children, effective learning experiences through small class sizes, professional development for teachers, and parent involvement and engagement. A longitudinal study of CPC shows that positive gains from preschool had stronger sustained effects for children who continued into CPC kindergarten and early elementary classrooms.

Both Mashburn’s initial findings and the CPC study support the concepts of facilitating understanding about expectations between early learning programs, kindergarten classrooms, and early elementary classrooms and coordinating professional development across early childhood and elementary grades.

Get the parents involved

Researchers at the Sustaining Early Childhood Gains conference noted that while early learning programs and smooth transitions to quality elementary schools can have a positive effect on children, parents and families play a vital role in their children’s success during the early years and into school.

“What families do in terms of supporting their kids’ learning and development is an important public good,” said Heather Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project.

Weiss reported that by sixth grade, children in middle-income families are likely to have 6,000 more hours of learning time than children who grow up in poverty, including parental time spent reading with children, enrollment in preschool, after school and extracurricular activities, summer camps and other summer learning activities, and field trips to museums and zoos. The gap in non-school learning activities is consistent with school achievement gaps observed between children from higher-income families and those from lower-income families.

Weiss noted that family and parent engagement can be layered into a variety of programs and systems. “Bring in a bunch of different community organizations—libraries, museums, church-based groups, etc.—in a common effort to try to reinforce the importance of family engagement and provide real opportunities to engage in their various spaces in order to boost the kids’ learning and development,” she said.

It appears that early learning programs themselves can have a positive effect on parenting practices. For example, parent engagement and outreach are key components of the CPC model, and year one study results from the CPC Midwest Expansion project indicate that parents who have preschool age children at CPC schools were more likely to be involved in school activities than parents who have children at a comparison group of non-CPC schools.

In discussing a study they conducted of the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP), a full-day early learning program for children ages 1 to 3 who had low birth weights, economist Aaron Sojourner of the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota and Greg Duncan noted that children from low-income families that were randomly assigned to have access to the program experienced strong gains in IQ scores, which helped close IQ gaps by age 3 with children from higher-income families. Substantial positive effects, though smaller, persisted for low-income children through age 18. Sojourner noted that additional recent analysis shows that access to the program caused reductions in maternal-care time and improvements in maternal-care quality among low-wage mothers. 

In addition to engaging parents through programs where their children attend, home visiting programs for at-risk families whose clients include pregnant women or infants and toddlers support positive parenting practices and parental involvement with their children’s development. Evidence-based home visiting models, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, Healthy Families America, Parents as Teachers, and an Early Head Start home-based option, have shown to support maternal and child health, child development, and family economic self-sufficiency.

Working with many pieces

The central theme that emerged from the Sustaining Early Childhood Gains discussion at the Minneapolis Fed is that strategies to sustain the benefits of early learning have lots of moving parts, from supporting early learning program effectiveness, to creating smooth transitions between early learning and kindergarten classrooms, to encouraging parents’ involvement in their children’s education. Each major part has components that raise further questions to explore. What’s the optimal preschool attendance time for a 3-year-old, for example? What are some best practices for ensuring consistency in teaching methods between pre-K and kindergarten? What are the most effective approaches for engaging busy, working parents?

Early education researchers will continue investigating questions like these and sharing their findings with peers, policymakers, and funders. The ultimate aim is to make sure early childhood education programs are grounded in evidence-based methods that yield positive outcomes for children and solid long-term returns on public and private investments.

State-sponsored early learning initiatives in the Ninth District

Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program provides preschool at a qualified program for 4-year-old children whose life factors place them at risk of failing in school.

Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships provide low-income families resources for 3- and 4-year-old children to access high-quality early learning programs and support parent engagement in their children’s education.

In April 2015, North Dakota passed a bill that created the Early Childhood Education Grant Program for qualified pre-kindergarten programs that serve low-income children.

Wisconsin’s 4K [state and locally funded preschool program] Community Approach brings together a broad range of local organizations involved with young children to collaborate on strategies to promote child well-being and school readiness.

Montana and South Dakota do not have a state-funded program to provide access to preschool.


1 In 2006, Art Rolnick, at the time research director at the Minneapolis Fed, and Arthur Reynolds, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, established as co-directors what is now the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota to promote multidisciplinary research on human development and learning with an emphasis on the early childhood years.

2 For more on these studies, see James J. Heckman, Rob Grunewald, and Arthur J. Reynolds, “The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education,” Zero to Three, July 2006, Vol. 26, No. 6, 10–17.

3 Craig Ramey and Sharon Landesman Ramey, Reframing Policy and Practice Deliberations: Twelve Hallmarks of Strategies to Sustain Early Childhood Gains, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, October 2015.