Early childhood investments are vital

It has been a busy 12 months for early childhood education policy and research. In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed in December 2015, Congress encouraged states to bring more coherence to their preschool programs and provided financial support for states to do so. ESSA supports aligning preschool with early elementary school and authorizes Preschool Development Grants to continue to support states as they develop early education systems, among other early childhood initiatives.

In September, the Department of Health and Human Services released sweeping regulatory changes to Head Start, the federally-funded national preschool program. This modernization includes phasing in a full day program and streamlining regulations.

States have long been the leaders—and primary funders—of expansions in public pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs. The most recent data indicate that 42 states plus the District of Columbia offer state-funded pre-K programs. These federal- and state-led initiatives to expand access to quality early childhood education are justified in part through growing evidence that preschool supports kindergarten readiness and positively impacts later-life outcomes for participants.

Long-term Impact of Early Childhood Programs

Researchers have increasingly been able to measure the pivotal role played by early childhood experiences in determining later-life outcomes. For example, research published in the past year has shown improvements measured in adulthood for children who were given access to food stamps, cash welfare, better neighborhoods, and health insurance.

Work by Nobel laureate James Heckman and others has demonstrated that high-quality preschool has benefits for high school graduation rates, employment, crime, and health. Indeed, this past year we have learned more about the impact of high-quality preschool programs. New research by Heckman and his coauthors suggests that, after accounting more accurately for long-term health and other benefits, the return on investment for early childhood programs is even higher than previously believed, at 13 percent rather than 7-10 percent.

Experimental evaluations of two preschool programs—The Abecedarian Project and The Perry Preschool Project—have furnished much of this evidence, as shown in the figure below. The Abecedarian Project provided early childhood education in 1970s North Carolina, while Perry Preschool did the same for a disadvantaged population in 1960s Michigan. Decades after the experiments were run, evaluators found that Perry and Abecedarian both increase employment for men and increase high school graduation and reported physical activity for women, while Perry causes reductions in the number of arrests reported and Abecedarian causes increased high school graduation for both men and women.


Not only do the high-quality model programs improve long-term outcomes of participants, but Head Start—the large-scale federal preschool program—also improves long-term outcomes such as high school completion and health. In an August 2016 economic analysis, The Hamilton Project investigated the impact of Head Start on a new set of long-term outcomes. Consistent with the prior literature on Head Start and the high quality preschool programs, we found that Head Start improves educational outcomes—increasing the probability that participants graduate from high school, attend college, and receive a post-secondary degree, license, or certification.


Perhaps most surprisingly, we found that the benefits of Head Start extend to the next generation. Relative to other preschool programs, Head Start participation increased positive parenting practices for a wide variety of demographic groups (see figure below).

One welcome trend that we saw this year in early childhood education was the secondary analysis of landmark experiments, most notably the Head Start Impact Study. The first reports using the data from this federally sponsored randomized controlled trial of Head Start showed an effect on kindergarten readiness followed by fadeout. But careful reanalyses of the Head Start Impact Study by external researchers have documented strong, important benefits of Head Start—especially for children who otherwise would not have attended preschool. In the coming years, we hope to see this trend continue, especially to determine whether the preliminary results from a recent pre-K intervention in Tennessee (suggesting negative impacts on work skills and attitudes) are persistent, and hold under reanalysis of the data by secondary researchers.