Investing in Early Education: Paths to Improving Children’s Success

January 23, 2008

The Promise of High-Quality Preschool Programs

As members of this Committee know well, there is good evidence from scientific research that preschool education can be an effective tool in our nation’s long struggle to reduce the achievement gap between poor children and children from non-poor families. Reducing the achievement gap holds great promise for reducing poverty in the long term and even for reducing inequality. Having spent many years studying social intervention programs, I think it is fair to say that there is no body of evidence on any social intervention that holds as much promise of producing as wide a range of positive effects as high-quality preschool programs.

Consider the evidence summarized in Tables 1 and 2 taken from work by Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research and Clive Belfield of New York University. Table 1 shows that three of the best preschool programs ever conducted in the U.S. – the Abecedarian program in North Carolina, the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers – produced major impacts on several measures of school performance, including special education placement, high school graduation, and even in one case college enrollment. Table 2 is equally impressive, showing that these high-quality preschool programs are capable of achieving even broader impacts on the well-being of children when they grow to adolescence and young adulthood. These broader impacts include reduced rates of teen pregnancy, better health, lower drug use, lower abortion rates, reduced criminal activity, and increases in lifetime earnings.

What Head Start Actually Accomplishes

The results from these three model programs have been used to argue that investments in preschool programs pay for themselves. But this claim ignores a major problem. The problem is that we have much less evidence that other programs can produce the types of impacts shown in Tables 1 and 2. Over the years, scholars, child advocates, and even members of Congress have made extravagant claims for the impacts that would be produced by investments in preschool education. The flaw in these claims is that just because small model programs with strong accountability components produce impressive impacts, it does not follow that every preschool program in which we invest money will produce similar impacts.