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Priorities for a New Century of Early Childhood Programs

Reynolds, Arthur J. PhD; Temple, Judy A. PhD

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PUBLIC INTEREST in early childhood development has never been higher. Investments in young children are regarded as one of the most effective ways to prevent learning difficulties and promote healthy development (Committee for Economic Development, 2002; Council of Economic Advisors, 1997; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Government expenditures on early childhood programs are likely to continue to rise given that only one half of all young children enroll in preschool (U.S. General Accounting Office [USGAO], 1999). Recent program initiatives from the White House, increased collaboration between the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, and wide dissemination of reports from the National Research Council (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) and other organizations (Barnett, Robin, Hustedt, & Schulman, 2004) illustrate the major commitment to early childhood learning. Of highest priority today and in the future are the effects of these investments on children and families at risk and how knowledge can be translated into the most cost-effective programs on the widest possible scale.

In this article, we highlight recurrent themes in the field that establish early childhood learning as one of the nation's most important priorities in the new century. We first discuss the status of investments in early childhood programs and the many sources of funding at all levels of government. This review reveals that better coordination of funding and services are needed. We then describe the rates and patterns of participation in early childhood programs by child and family characteristics. Our emphasis is on children younger than age 5 who are at risk because of economic disadvantage or developmental disabilities.

Finally, we review advances in knowledge about the effectiveness of early childhood programs and their implications for practice. Among the questions addressed are which types of programs are most effective and for whom? What are the key components of effective programs? What are the economic benefits of preschool programs? What are the limits of our knowledge? What are the implications of the knowledge base for program development and expansion? We illustrate these trends using research from several projects, including the Chicago Longitudinal Study (CLS), High/Scope Perry Preschool Program (PPP), and the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC).


Federal and state governments have made large investments in early childhood care and education programs. We define early childhood programs broadly as the provision of educational, social, family, and/or health services, during any of the first 5 years of life to children, many of whom are at risk of poor outcomes because they face socioenvironmental disadvantages (eg, low family income) or have developmental disabilities. Given the timing and breadth of services, these programs are preventive.

Although the rationale of these investments ranges from preventing learning difficulties to subsidizing child care for low-income working parents, the broad aim is to improve children's readiness for school. This is reflected in the first national education goal that all children will start school ready to learn. Funding for early childhood programs comes from several sources. Of the approximately $15 billion allocated to care and education programs in the birth to age 5 in 1998–1999, the most recent year with detailed information, 70% (or $11.4 billion) were federal expenditures (USGAO, 1999). The major categories are Head Start preschool ($4.66 billion), Child Care and Development Funds ($3.17 billion), Title I education funding to school districts ($936 million), block grants to the states through TANF ([Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]; $895 million), and special education funding through IDEA ($744 million). Head Start funding has risen by 33% since 1994. The remaining 30% (or $3.6 billion) were for early childhood education programs in 32 states ($1.7 billion) and for child care and Head Start supplements ($1.9 billion but mostly the former). With these funds, the states serve approximately 1 million children (USGAO, 1999).

Funding has increased substantially in the last 5 years. In 2002, total spending on preschool programs from state and federal funding was $22 billion, an increase of $7 billion since 1998 (White House, 2003). Funding for state-run programs totaled $2.4 billion, an increase of $700 million since 1998 (Barnett et al., 2004).

Despite the increased investments in early childhood programs, several challenges remain. First, the nation's early childhood system is fragmented. The number of funding mechanisms and administrative systems makes coordination difficult and the continuity of services low. Relatively few children, for example, are enrolled in a single early childhood program or setting for more than a year. The most typical center-based arrangement for a 4-year-old is a part-day program for 1 year, with few opportunities for transition support in the early grades. The quality of programs is uneven, with many mediocre or poor. Calls for a better coordinated early childhood system that provides opportunities for increased length and quality of services have led to greater emphasis on collaboration among service providers, participation in programs from birth to age 3, and efforts to support learning gains through successful transition programs.

Another major area of concern is the large variation in services offered. Federally funded programs such as Head Start, IDEA, and Title I preschool are most likely to provide comprehensive services to children at risk. Block grants to subsidize day care provide far fewer services as they lack a broad educational mission. As reported by the USGAO (1999), more than 70% of center-based providers offer educational programs but fewer than 10% provide medical services and referrals, parental support, and family social services. The number of services provided is far less in home settings as the percentage of providers offering educational programs is about 30% and less than 5% for medical services and referrals, parent support, and family social services. Because the effectiveness of early childhood programs varies by length, quality, and breadth of services, how investments are made are crucial issues for the cost-effectiveness of services. The changing demographics of the workforce, the work requirements of welfare reform, and increasing levels of disadvantage in inner cities mean that contemporary early childhood programs will need to be better tailored to the needs of families and children than ever before. One of the tradeoffs is between providing more extensive services to a fixed number of children and less extensive services to larger numbers of children.


Although funding for early childhood programs has increased substantially in recent years, growth in the percentage of children served has been incremental. Figure 1 shows the pattern of participation in early childhood programs from 1983 to 2000 for 3- to 5-year-olds as reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics (2002). Rates of participation in center-based care and education programs vary substantially by age. About one third of 3-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs (at all levels of funding) in 2000, two thirds of 4-year-olds, and one half of 3- and 4-year olds were enrolled in preschool programs. As expected, about 90% of 5-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood programs, almost all of them as kindergartners.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
US children in early childhood programs. From National Center for Educational Statistics (2002).

The largest increases in rates of participation were for 4-year-olds, reflecting the increased funding for Head Start and state-level early childhood education programs. Notwithstanding the trends in the demographics of work and the evidence that participation in early childhood programs is associated with improved child development, optimal levels of participation have not been reached. Indeed, of the 8 million 3- and 4-year-olds served, 4.1 million were enrolled in preschool programs in 2000, leaving 3.9 million children unserved. Moreover, significant impediments to participation remain including cost, availability of full-day programs, and the availability of well-trained staff.

As expected, preschool attendance differs substantially by family income and education. In 1997, for example, 40% of children living in poverty were enrolled in preschool programs compared to 51% of children above the poverty line (Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1999). Differences by level of parent education were even larger as 71% of children of college graduates attended preschool programs, but only 47% of children of high school graduates, and 37% of children of parents not completing high school. Since participation in preschool programs has been consistently associated with greater levels of school readiness, increasing access to early childhood programs of sufficient quality is likely to improve child outcomes.


At the beginning of the 21st century, the field of early childhood intervention has amassed a large knowledge base about the effects of early childhood programs on children's development and learning. Several advances in the past decade are evident and these are described in many reports (Committee for Economic Development, 2002; Currie, 2001; International Reading Association, 1998; Karoly, 2001; Karoly, Kilburn, Bigelow, Caulkins, & Cannon, 2001; Shonkoff & Meisels, 2000). We highlight 4 of these advances.

Support for model and large-scale programs

First, there is substantial support for the short- and long-term effects of a variety of well-implemented programs (Barnett & Boocock, 1998; Guralnick, 1997; Karoly, 2001; Zigler & Valentine, 1997). Relative to nonparticipation, participation in early childhood programs is consistently associated with higher levels of cognitive development, early school achievement, and motivation in the short term, with lower rates of grade retention and special education services during the elementary grades, and, in the long-term, with higher rates of school completion and educational attainment. Recent studies show that program participation is associated with significantly lower rates of delinquency and crime (Garces, Thomas, & Currie, 2002; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001).

Table 1 shows the most frequently cited programs in 16 published reviews of the short- and long-term effects of intervention. Published from 1990 to 2001, the identified programs all served low-income children and families and provided services ranging from home visitation to preschool education. In contrast to a decade ago, support is greater for the positive benefits of public programs up to 2 decades after participation, including in Head Start programs and the Child-Parent Centers (CPCs) in the Chicago public schools. Five of the most frequently cited programs in Table 1 are public.

Table 1
Table 1:
Most frequently cited early childhood programs from 16 research reviews (1990–2001)

Timing and length of participation

A second major advance is that both the timing and length of intervention matter. In the past decade, empirical support for these attributes has grown substantially (McCall et al., 2003; Ramey & Ramey, 1998; Reynolds, 2000; Weissberg & Greenberg, 1998). The most effective programs reported in the literature are those that began during the first 3 years of life, continue or multiple years, and/or provide support to children's school transitions. Not surprisingly, the most frequently cited programs in Table 1 meet one or more of these attributes, including the High/Scope PPP, Carolina Abecedarian Project, Chicago CPC, and the Houston Parent Child Development Centers. Moreover, this pattern of findings is consistent with ecological theory in that the impact of proximal processes, as experienced in interventions, is a function of their occurrence “on a regular basis over extended periods of time” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998, p. 996).

Early childhood interventions that extend into the primary grades are designed to not only support children's school transition but to help prevent the dissipating effects of preschool programs. Findings from the 4 most well-known programs–Head Start/Follow Through, Chicago CPC, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Head Start/Public School Transition Demonstration Project–reveal that extended early childhood programs can promote children's school competence above and beyond that of preschool intervention alone (Reynolds, 2003). Effectiveness is enhanced to the extent that program services are administrated by schools in an integrated fashion, that multiple years are provided, and that the focus is on school organization and instructional resources such as reduced class sizes and provisions for parent involvement (see McCall et al., 2003; Reynolds, 2003).

Research in the Chicago CPCs, a Head Start–style program, provides a recent example. This Title I program emphasizes literacy-rich instructional activities, intensive parent involvement through staffed parent rooms, health and outreach services, and up to 6 years of intervention from ages 3 to 9 in a school-stable environment. Analyses in the CLS (Reynolds, 2003; Reynolds et al., 2001) indicate that participation beginning in preschool and continuing into the early grades is associated with greater competence outcomes in the short and long term. Participation in extended intervention is associated with higher school achievement and lower rates of special education, grade retention, and child maltreatment (see Reynolds, 2000; Reynolds et al., 2001; Reynolds & Robertson, 2003). In support of the timing of intervention, participation beginning in preschool rather than in kindergarten or first grade is more associated with school achievement and longer-term effects, regardless of the length of participation in the total program (Reynolds et al., 2001; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2002).

Mechanisms of effects

A third major advance in knowledge is the identification and corroboration of the pathways of intervention effects. Identifying the processes through which early education impacts long-term educational and social outcomes provides insight into promoting effectiveness for children in all types of programs. One major mechanism of effects on child development outcomes is attributable to the cognitive-scholastic advantage experienced in the program. This advantage culminates in greater school readiness, better classroom adjustment, school commitment, and avoidance of grade retention, and special education placement. Support for these hypotheses has been found for model and large-scale programs (Campbell, Pungello, Miller-Johnson, Burchinal, & Ramey, 2001; Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, 1983; Reynolds, 2000; Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993).

In addition, there is emerging support for the significant contributions of the family support and school support hypotheses of intervention effects. In the family support hypothesis, the enduring effects of intervention occur as a function of parental involvement and nurturance of children's learning (Reynolds, 2000). In the school support hypotheses, demonstration of long-term effects depends in part on the quality of children's elementary schools after intervention; they are more likely if preschool graduates attend higher quality schools (Reynolds, 2000; Reynolds, Ou, & Topitzes, 2004) and are less likely, in the case of Head Start, if graduates attend lower quality schools (Currie & Thomas, 2000). Support for the motivational advantage and social adjustment hypothesis is growing (Heckman, 2000; Reynolds et al., 2004).

Figure 2 shows 5 hypotheses by which early childhood programs can affect long-term outcomes of significant economic returns. To the extent that high-quality child care, state-funded preschools, and federal programs impact any or all of these 5 intervention hypotheses, long-term effects on educational attainment and social behavior are more likely to occur. Thus, this pattern of evidence indicates that the benefits of programs of good quality can be substantial and worth the cost for more than just low-income children.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
Paths leading to social competence. MA indicates motivational advantage; CA, cognitive advantage; SA, social adjustment; FS, family support; and SS, school support.

Economic benefits of participation

As prevention programs, early educational interventions can be expected to provide benefits to participants and society that would translate into economic returns from cost savings in education and justice system treatment and from increased earnings capacity in adulthood. Cost-effectiveness analyses of social programs is a major departure from traditional effectiveness studies that rely on measures of effect size, such as the d statistic and percentage change metrics, and do not take into account the costs of intervention services. Until recently, evidence on economic returns of preschool was limited to the High/Scope PPP, which indicated an economic return of over $7 per dollar invested by reducing the costs of crime and by increasing earnings capacity and associated tax revenues (Barnett, 1996; Schweinhart et al., 1993). Economic analyses of the Elmira Nurse Home Visitation Program (Karoly et al., 1998; Olds et al., 1997), the Abecedarian Project (Masse & Barnett, 2002), and the Chicago CPCs (Reynolds et al., 2002) have confirmed that the economic returns of preschool programs are high. Findings indicate that for every dollar invested in these high-quality programs, $4 to $10 is returned to society in government savings in education and criminal justice, and in increased economic well-being. These benefits exceed those of other social programs for children and youth (Heckman, 2000; Karoly, 2001). We describe these and other long-term findings in more detail later. The economic benefits of preschool programs have been highlighted in several recent reports (Carroll, Ochshorn, Kagan, & Fuller, 2003; Committee for Economic Development, 2002; Heckman, 2000; Oppenheim & McGregor, 2003).

As much as knowledge has advanced about the effects of early intervention, 4 recurrent questions are only beginning to be answered: (1) What are the environmental conditions that promote the persistence of effects for a diversity of early childhood programs? (2) For whom are existing programs most effective and which program features are most associated with success? (3) What are the effects of contemporary public programs over time? and (4) Are the program effects found for children at high risk of school failure similar for children at lower levels of risk?

These questions represent, in part, the natural progression toward a more complete knowledge base. Guralnick (1997) noted that while the main objective of the first generation of research was to demonstrate that early intervention can positively affects children's outcomes, the task of the second generation of research is to address more refined questions such as who benefits most from which services and what is the cost-effectiveness of alternative programs, and how should programs be organized?


We review the findings of 3 projects with the most extensive data on the long-term effects of early education: High/Scope PPP, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago CPCs. All 3 programs have provided high-quality educational enrichment to children at risk, characterized by small class sizes, a focus on language and cognitive skills, and well-qualified and compensated teachers. The ABC was the most intensive and lengthy, providing full-day, year-round care for 5 years (Campbell & Ramey, 1995; Ramey, Campbell, & Blair, 1998). The High/Scope PPP provided the most established and organized curriculum, which followed the Piagetian cognitive principle of child-initiated learning (Schweinhart et al., 1993). The Chicago CPCs provide the most comprehensive services by implementing an intensive parent involvement component, outreach services, and attention to health and nutrition (Reynolds, 2000; Sullivan, 1971). It also is the only program that became established in public schools.

The High/Scope PPP (Schweinhart et al., 1993) was implemented in Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Mich, from 1962 to 1967. It served 3- and 4-year-old African American children from low-SES families. All children had IQ scores in the range of 70 to 85, which reduces generalizability to low-SES African American children. The program ran for one half of the day (2.5 hours), 5 days a week, with weekly home visits by teachers of 90 minutes. Children enrolled in the program beginning at age 3 or 4. Classes sizes ranged from 20 to 25 for the sequential cohorts of children. With 4 teachers in each class, the average child-to-staff ratio was 5.7 to 1. On the basis of Piagetian cognitive developmental theory, the program offers a child-initiated instructional approach based on the learning process of “plan-do-review.” As public school teachers, most staff had master's degrees in education and certification in early childhood. The experimental impact study included 123 children: 58 children were randomly assigned to PPP in 5 consecutive cohorts beginning in 1962 and 65 children in the control group who were in home care. Study participants have been followed up to age 27, with intervening follow-ups at ages 8, 15, and 19 (Berrueta-Clement et al., 1984). At age 27, 95% of the study sample had data on high school completion (Schweinhart et al., 1993).

The Abecedarian Project (Campbell & Ramey, 1995; Ramey et al., 1998; Ramey et al., 2000) was a model educational day-care intervention that was implemented from 1972 to 1977 at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Participants entered the program beginning at 6 weeks of age, and attended 5 years of full-time, year-round care. Most of the children were African American and were determined to be at high risk of school failure, primarily due to low SES. The focus of the program was to promote optimal child development, with a special emphasis on language development. Although there was no family component, medical and nutritional services were provided. Unlike most early education today, teachers were compensated with salaries that were competitive with public schools. In year 1, group size was 12 infants with 4 teachers, and staff for a child-to-staff ratio of 3 to 1. In years 2 and 3, group size was 7 toddlers and 2 teachers, for a child-to-staff ratio of 3.5 to 1. During preschool, classes had 12 children and 2 teachers, a child-to-staff ratio of 6 to 1. The experimental impact study included 111 families: 57 children were randomly assigned to ABC soon after birth and continued until the start of kindergarten and 54 children were assigned to the control group and they could receive many of the same medical and nutritional services as the program group as well as transportation to the center. To investigate the impact of school-age participation, the study sample was randomly assigned to school-age and control conditions prior to kindergarten entry. Study participants have been tracked up to age 21, with a 95% sample recovery rate for high school completion. Follow-up assessments at ages 8, 12, and 15 also were made.

The Child-Parent Center Program (CPC; Reynolds, 2000; Sullivan, 1971) began in the Chicago public schools in 1967 through federal funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title I of the Act provides grants to local public school districts serving high percentage of children from low-income families. The centers are the nation's second oldest federally funded preschool program. The CPC program is a center-based early intervention that provides comprehensive educational and family-support services to economically disadvantaged children and their parents beginning at age 3 and continuing until third grade for up to 6 years of intervention. The 24 centers provide comprehensive services under the direction of the head teacher and in collaboration with the elementary school principal. Other primary staff in each center are the parent resource teacher, the school-community representative, bachelor's-level classroom teachers, aides, nurses, speech therapists, and school psychologists. Like PPP, the preschool component is a half-day program for 5 days a week during the school year. Parents are heavily involved in the program through many types of school participation. Preschool classes have 17 children, a teacher, and a teacher's aide, for a child-to-staff ratio of 8.5 to 1. All teachers have bachelor's degrees, with certification in early childhood. Most of the children are African American and reside in low-income families. After a full- or half-day kindergarten, children can participate in the school-age component in first to third grades. The impact study is the CLS (1999; Reynolds, 1999), which includes the entire cohort of 989 children born in 1980 who attended the preschool program beginning at age 3 and completed kindergarten in the spring of 1986. The comparison group of 550 children in this quasi-experimental design did not attend the CPCs but instead participated in an all-day kindergarten program for child at risk in 5 randomly selected schools in which the kindergarten program resided. Study participants have been followed up to age 22, with a sample recovery rate of 87% for high school completion. Follow-up assessments were conducted yearly between kindergarten and seventh grade, and at ages 15, 17 to 18, and into early adulthood (see Reynolds & Ou, 2004; Reynolds et al., 2002).

The major findings of the 3 studies are shown in Table 2 (also see Masse & Barnett, 2002; Reynolds et al., 2002; Schweinhart et al., 1993). The estimated impacts of the programs are large and occurred 17 to 25 years after the end of preschool participation. Group differences are specific to preschool participation and are adjusted for child and family background differences between groups such as preprogram IQ, family SES, and other factors. The covariates were different across the 3 studies. For example, the CPC studies did not measure IQ and included as covariates sex of child, race/ethnicity, family risk, participation in school-age services, and site location.

Table 2
Table 2:
Adjusted means or percentages for program and comparison groups on key outcomes*,†

Participation in all 3 programs was associated with significantly higher cognitive development at age 5, lower rates of special education services up to and including adolescence, higher achievement test scores through the elementary grades, and higher rates of educational attainment as measured by high school completion or college attendance. The Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (1983) showed similar results. On employment and earnings, only PPP participants showed significant group differences but these outcomes have not been similarly assessed by ABC and CPC. PPP and CPC have demonstrated significant program effects on crime prevention but not ABC (see Clarke & Campbell, 1998). Garces et al. (2002) found that Head Start had similar crime prevention benefits for African Americans and educational attainment benefits for Whites. Overall, these findings show that the programs enhanced participants' general social competence over the first 2 decades of life.


At a minimum, the estimated economic benefits of program participation should equal the amount invested in the program—a return of at least $1 per dollar invested (Levin & McEwan, 2001). All 3 early education programs showed substantial economic returns of preschool through government savings in education, justice system, and health expenditures and in increased economic well-being. These benefits are summarized in Table 3 as reported in the reports from each program. All values are the average economic return per program participant in 2002 dollars using the procedures discussed by Barnett (1996), Masse & Barnett (2002), and Reynolds et al. (2002).

Table 3
Table 3:
Summary of costs and benefits per participant in 2002 dollars for 3 preschool programs*

All 3 programs showed a large return on investment on the basis of data collected into adulthood, ranging from a total societal benefit of $4 per dollar invested to $10.15 per dollar invested. These ratios can be interpreted as the economic return per dollar invested, which is an indication of program efficiency. Benefit-to-cost ratios index the return on investment, whereby $2 dollars per dollar invested would be a 100% return. The estimates in Table 3 are equivalent to a 278% to 915% return on the dollar. The CPC program showed the highest benefit-to-cost ratio, reflected its relatively lower costs whereas the Perry Program had the greatest net economic benefit, as measured by benefits minus costs. The lower costs of CPC are primarily a result of a higher child-to-staff ratio in the classroom (8.5–1 versus less than 6–1 for Perry and Abecedarian). That a routinely implemented school-based program demonstrates such returns is encouraging for public-school early education models. The other school-based program, PPP, demonstrated an economic return of $8.74 per dollar invested. At $3.78 per dollar invested, ABC had the lowest benefit-to-cost ratio. This is not surprising given its high cost. In terms of public benefits alone (ie, government and crime victim savings), benefit-to-cost ratios ranged from $2.69 to $7.16 per dollar invested.


How do the economic returns of preschool compare to other programs for children and youth? The goal of such comparisons is to acknowledge that the true value of investments in preschool or other programs can be gauged only when viewed in the context of the benefits of other investments. As Heckman (2000) noted, “in evaluating a human capital investment strategy, it is crucial to consider the entire policy portfolio of interventions together—training programs, school-based policies, school reform, and early interventions—rather than focusing on one type of policy in isolation from the others” (p. 50).

Our analysis indicates that the economic benefits of preschool programs, as measured by those reported in the 3 studies described earlier, exceed those of many other programs for children and youth (see Reynolds & Temple, in press, for details). The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was found to return $3.07 per dollar invested in the program (Avruch & Cackley, 1995; USGAO, 1992). The Prenatal/Early Infancy Project (Olds et al., 1997), an intensive nurse home visitation program for young mothers having their first child, was found to return up to $5.10 for every dollar invested in the program (Karoly et al., 1998). Reduced class sizes in the early school grades have been found to provide an economic return of $2.83 per dollar invested in the program (Krueger, 2003; Reynolds & Temple, in press). The economic return of the school practice of grade retention is negative—a loss of $3.32 per dollar invested—as a consequence of the higher rate of school dropout of retained students (Reynolds & Temple, 2004). Finally, the federally funded Job Corps program of vocational training and education for at-risk youth provides an economic of $1.32 per dollar invested (Long, Maller, & Thorton, 1981). More recent studies of this and other job training programs show even smaller benefits (Heckman, 2000; Karoly, 2001). Thus, the economic benefits of preschool education far surpass those of the many other programs.


This article reviewed growing evidence for the long-term effects of a variety of early education programs for children at risk. Much research over the past decade has not only corroborated earlier studies documenting the persistent effects of early education programs but have expanded the knowledge on the importance of timing and duration of intervention, and the identification of key pathways of long-term effects. On the basis of recent studies, we also found that investments in early education programs had substantially higher net benefits and benefit-to-cost ratios than several education, job training, and health service interventions. Since nearly 2 in 5 children do not enroll in center-based preschool programs, and the quality of services that many receive is not high, the CPCs, PPP, Abecedarian Project, and other similar programs provide effective models for program expansion. The economic findings of the CPC program add significantly to the literature by indicating that larger-scale public programs run by schools can produce the same pattern of benefits as model programs. On the basis of our review of the knowledge base, we describe 5 major principles for enhancing the long-term effects of preschool programs in the decades to come.

The first main principle of effectiveness is that a coordinated system of early education is in place beginning at age 3 and continuing to the early school grades. Program implementation within a single administrative system in partnerships with communities can promote stability in children's learning environment, which can provide smooth transitions from preschool to kindergarten and from kindergarten to the early grades. The 3 major programs we reviewed were either housed in elementary schools or provided continuity of services between preschool and formal schooling. This is a “first decade” strategy for promoting children's learning (Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 2003). Today, most pre-school programs are not integrated within public schools and children usually change schools more than once by the early grades. In the movement to universal access to early education, schools could take a leadership role in partnership with community agencies. More generally, programs that provide coordinated or “wrap around” services may be more effective under a centralized leadership structure rather than under a case-management framework. The CPC program, for example, is an established program in the third largest school system in the nation. Findings from the cost-benefit analysis of complete cohort CPC participants give a good indication of the size of effects that could be possible in public schools, the largest administrative system of early education programs.

Among the recommendations that are consistent with this principle of system coordination are (a) to increase the amount of Title I funds that go to preschool (in 2000, only 5% of $10 billion allocated to schools under Title I went to preschool programs [USGAO, 2000]); (b) to increase the number of Head Start programs administered by public schools (only about one third of Head Start grantees are schools); and (c) to expand the availability of full-day programs in both preschool and kindergarten (research in the CPC and Abecedarian programs indicates that as program length increases, so does children's school performance.)

A second major principle of effective preschool education is that the teaching staff should be trained and compensated well, preferably with earned bachelor's degrees, certification in early childhood, and competitive salaries. These characteristics are much more likely under a public school model of universal access, notwithstanding the need for established partnerships with community child-care agencies. It is no coincidence that the 3 major programs reviewed in the chapter followed this principle. Being located in public schools, the Perry and CPC programs were implemented by teachers with at least bachelor's degrees and appropriate certification in early childhood. They were paid on the public school salary scale, and Perry teachers received a 10% bonus for working in the program. In the Abecedarian program, teachers were compensated at level that was highly competitive with public schools. Turnover was low in all 3 programs. In most other early education programs, from child care to Head Start, staff do not have this level of education, training, and compensation, and turnover significantly higher. In contemporary early education, greater commitment to preservice and ongoing professional training is needed more than ever.

Third, educational content should be responsive to all of children's learning needs but special emphasis should be given to cognitive and school readiness skills through a structured but diverse set of learning activities. All 3 cost-effective programs reviewed in the chapter had a strong emphasis on the development of cognitive and language skills necessary to do well in school within a responsive learning environment. Child-to-staff ratios of less than 9 to 1 in preschool certainly help as well. The curriculum appeared to be less important since the programs spanned from Perry's child-initiated approach to Chicago's blended, teacher-directed approach. Extrapolating these findings, preschool and other social programs are more likely to have enduring effects if they provide services that are intensive and are dedicated to the enhancement of educational and social skills (Heckman, 2000; Zigler & Berman, 1983).

A fourth principle for effective preschool education is that comprehensive family services should be provided to meet the different needs of children. As child development programs, preschool programs must be tailored to family circumstances and thus provide opportunities for positive learning experiences in school and at home (Zigler & Styfco, 1993). Those with special needs or who are most at risk benefit from intensive and comprehensive services.  Each of the cost-effective preschool programs discussed in the chapter provided family services. Abecedarian provided medical and nutritional services. The Perry preschool had weekly home visits by teachers. In the CPC program, parent involvement is more intensive as each center has a parent resource room run by a certified teacher and provides school-community outreach. Parents' own educational and personal development are important program goals.

Finally, greater commitment to ongoing evaluations of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness is needed. Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness studies are rarely conducted. This state of affairs limits full consideration of alternative programs. Paramount in conducting cost-benefit analyses is the availability of longitudinal studies of social programs for children and youth. These studies are more likely to accurately assess the total impact of program participation. In addition, more studies are needed that address the differential effects of participation across a range of child, family, and program attributes. The identification of the mediators of the effects of program participation and the environmental conditions necessary to promote lasting effects also is a high priority. To carry out these activities, research funding for assessing the effects of high-priority social programs should be increased. Of the approximately $550 to $600 billion spent on K-16 education and social programs for children and youth each year, only one third of 1% goes to research and development (National Science and Technology Council, 1997). Research spending on investments in children should approximate the 2% to 3% of total expenditures that go to biotechnology, energy, and transportation.


The major challenge for the future is how the recommendations and principles derived from the extensive knowledge base on early education can be tailored to the needs of children and families best. Unlike a decade ago, scientific support for the benefits of a wide variety of programs, both pilot and large scale, is strong. There is now a critical mass of studies indicating the large economic returns of early education programs. These returns exceed those of other social programs. Major principles for enhancing effectiveness in early education are that programs should be well organized, provide intensive services during the first few years of life, provide comprehensive services, and support continuity during the first decade of life by assisting in children's school transitions. The tension between targeting limited resources to the most disadvantaged and providing a coherent system for all will continue but attention to these empirically supported principles will help achieve a better balance between the 2 goals. As investments increase for expanding programs for young children, understanding their effects will be paramount. As reviewed in this article, however, the demonstrated benefits of these investments are clear.


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