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Early Childhood

Early Intervention Pays Off for Disadvantaged Children, Says New Study

By Christina A. Samuels — December 12, 2016 4 min read
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James J. Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist whose research has yielded the often-quoted statistic that investment in high-quality preschool can yield a 7 to 10 percent “rate of return,” has released a new study showing an even greater rate of return for a program that worked with children from infancy to age 5.

Heckman, currently a professor at the University of Chicago, and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California, released a paper Monday that studied the effects of the 1970s-era Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) and a largely similar project called Carolina Approach to Responsive Education, jointly referred to as ABC/CARE.

The cost of the ABC/CARE interventions were substantial—an estimated $18,500 per child per year in 2014 dollars. But the rate of return for ABC/CARE was about 13 percent when researchers looked at the participants’ improved health, IQ, education, and decreases in their involvement in crime, as well as the increased labor participation of the mothers whose children were a part of the program, the study states.

In a press call to announce the results, Heckman said the greater return is likely to be connected to the intensity of the program and the fact that it started very early in a child’s life, when children’s brains are very malleable.

“I’m not saying that programs that start at 3 and 4 are not going to be effective,” Heckman said. “My hunch is that they’re going to be less effective than starting earlier.”

The fact that the program also allowed mothers to work outside the home and earn more money is also closely tied to the increased rate of return, he said.

What did ABC/CARE Look Like?

Both of those programs, projects of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were launched in the early 1970s and lasted until 1980. Approximately 100 children deemed to be at high risk, almost all of whom were black, were separated into a treatment group and a control group and tracked to age 35. Most of the children in the study were raised by single mothers.

Unlike the Ypsilanti, Mich., Perry Preschool project, which focused children ages 3 and 4 and was the subject of Heckman’s earlier well-known research, ABC/CARE started working with children when they were just 8 weeks old. The program looks quite different from today’s publicly-funded preschool programs, and even different from many child-care programs currently available.

For example, the program was offered for nine hours a day, five days a week and 50 weeks a year. Subjects were offered free transportation to and from the center. Lead caregivers had, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree, and all the caregivers received professional development and weekly mentoring.

The actual program for the children was highly individualized. Children were closely observed and were taught activities focused on providing active learning, dramatic play opportunities, and preacademic skills. When children reached age 3, the focus shifted to “socio-linguistic and communicative competence.” The program also included home visits for some participants.

Finally, the program also included comprehensive on-site medical care by pediatricians and nurse-practitioners. Those medical providers offered well-child services like immunizations as well as basic medical treatment.

Not surprisingly, the cost for a comprehensive program like ABC/CARE is very high, Heckman said during the press call. The $18,500 per child cost compares to an average $8,800 per Head Start slot in fiscal 2015. But building the state highway system and the Hoover Dam was expensive too, he said.

Results Exposed Gender Differences

The findings also demonstrated a different rate of return for boys compared to girls. Since most of the children in the control group attended some other, lower-quality child-care arrangement, the researchers were able to compare their outcomes to those of the treatment group.

What they found was that boys benefited from ABC/CARE the most relative to attending alternative child-care programs. Girls benefited the most compared to staying at home.

Another way of putting it: Boys are more negatively impacted by low-quality child-care arrangements, Heckman said in an interview. The findings were similar in his Perry Preschool research, he noted.

“Boys just seem to be more sensitive. Young girls are more resilient,” he said.

The benefits to boys also appear to be higher because boys are more likely to be involved in crimes that are very costly to society. The ABC/CARE program reduced crime rates for participants overall, but the magnitude of that reduction is greater for boys.

What are Heckman’s Policy Recommendations?

Heckman has long argued for an investment in early-childhood education, and these results don’t change that view. The evidence is stronger that intervening earlier in a child’s life will have greater impact than adding prekindergarten, he said.

Also important is the individualized attention that the children and families received through the program, he noted. “It’s not like we’re sending the kids off to school and the parents are locked out. You’re engaging the child and the parent in this lifelong enterprise.”

These programs should be aimed at the neediest children, Heckman said—not necessarily just children from low-income families, though many of them would benefit, he added.

“People are just looking at the income of the parent, but it’s more about the opportunity of the child,” he said. “That’s just a fact of life, that there are family environments where children are not given very rich opportunities. Enhancing those environments has very high economic benefits.”

Heckman’s reseach has yet to be peer-reviewed. Support for the research came in part from the Bu ffett Early Childhood Fund; the Pritzker Children’s Initiative; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Insitute for New Economic Thinking, and the America Bar Foundation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.