Impacts of Early Childhood Programs

Julia B. Isaacs and
Julia B. Isaacs Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Urban Institute
Emily Roessel

September 4, 2008


From neuroscientists to economists, a range of researchers have focused attention on the critical importance of children’s early years. At the same time, business, education, and political leaders have underscored the goal of ensuring that young children enter school “ready to learn,” so that they can succeed in school and as the next generation of workers and citizens. Ideals of equal opportunity provide further impetus for addressing gaps in skills at early ages, so that children from disadvantaged families have a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.

As a result, there have been increasing calls on federal and state policy-makers to expand public investments in early childhood education. The goal of this set of research briefs, Impacts of Early Childhood Programs, is to provide policy-makers with a user-friendly summary of up-to-date, high-quality evidence on several early childhood interventions and their impact on children and families.

New research on early childhood programs continues to emerge. Recent studies demonstrate that state pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs have had positive effects on children’s readiness to learn, with large impacts in some states. Findings from the National Head Start Impact Study, released in 2005, provide more rigorous evidence than previously existed of Head Start’s positive impacts on children. An earlier national evaluation of Early Head Start also found a range of small positive impacts on very young children’s cognitive skills, behavior, and health.

Long-lasting impacts of early childhood model programs from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are still being reported in follow-up studies. Children participating in Chicago Child-Parent Centers were followed to age 24 in a study released last year, and a 2005 study tracked former participants of Perry Preschools to age 40. Recently issued follow-up studies of nurse home visiting programs also document ongoing positive impacts several years after at-risk mothers and their infants graduate from the programs.

Child and family impacts for these five programs – State Pre-K, Head Start, Early Head Start, Model Early Childhood Programs, and Nurse Home Visiting – are summarized in Table 1 below. As shown in the table, all five early childhood education programs have had positive impacts on children’s cognitive skills and/or school outcomes, with the largest effects reported from some state pre-K programs and the model center-based programs.

Most early childhood interventions also have had positive impacts on children’s emotional and behavioral outcomes, including long-term reductions in criminal behavior. There also is some evidence of improvements in children’s health and safety, and some programs have had positive effects on the children’s parents.

Examples of specific improvements (e.g., reduction in special education, higher rates of high school graduation) are provided in the accompanying set of five research briefs, as well as information on the quality of research on each program and pertinent federal legislation. Taken individually or as a set, the research briefs provide evidence-based assessments of the effectiveness of five major early childhood interventions.

Individual Briefs:
State Pre-K »
Head Start »
Early Head Start »
Model Early Childhood Programs »
Nurse Home Visiting »

Download the Full Report »