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Early Learning,

Here's Looking at You, Kids

We live in a data driven world.

We live in a data driven world.  From self monitoring analysis of personal life styles to monitoring language development in babies’ coos and ahhs, society measures, aggregates and analyzes billions of pieces of information per day. Moving from the classroom to the administration office gave me my first significant and practical introduction to the world of educational data. Test scores, attendance trends, groups, subgroups, discipline maps – we were told to dig, dig, dig into the data hoping to uncover one nugget that just might improve student achievement.  Well, it turns out that there are many nuggets in data, and our digging found problems for which we found solutions and through which I became a fan of data analysis and research.  So I turned to research to examine what the world of data has to say about the effectiveness of Early Childhood Education.

There is of course a myriad of studies and trials, reports and analyses.  However, two studies are most oft quoted by the proponents of Early Childhood Education programs: the Perry Preschool Program study in Michigan, and the Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There is also a plethora of data regarding the federally funded Head Start Program.

Briefly stated, the Perry and Abecedarian studies are very interesting because they are longitudinal (they studied students for 30+ years) and the findings measure other factors besides cognitive development. Time and space prohibit a thorough discussion of the details of the studies; the focus for the purpose of this article, is the results. (For more complete information and descriptions, I found the following to be most helpful: The Perry Preschool Project and The Abecedarian Project. )

Good news/bad news – we’ll start with the bad.  These two studies, and the 2010 government mandated study of Head Start, clearly reveal no statistically significant improvement in the cognitive abilities of students who participated in Early Childhood Education curriculum. Any improvements that occurred in the 4 and 5 year olds, quickly dissolved in the first few years of elementary school. So why do Early Childhood Education advocates use these studies as cornerstones for their arguments?  Because the good news is astoundingly good.

The findings clearly show that students with 1-2 years of Early Childhood Education/Pre-K had a strong correlation with the following academic and social achievements:

  1. Higher high school graduation rate
  2. Higher enrollment in 4 year colleges
  3. Higher economic status
  4. Higher employment rate
  5. Lower crime rate

This data provides a strong argument for the social and economic importance of Early Childhood Education. It does however, also lead to an important, basic philosophical question:  What is the main purpose of public education?  If one believes that the cognitive development in reading, writing, and arithmetic should dominate the focus of education, then this data suggests monies for Early Childhood Education are a waste. If one believes that the social and personal development of skills needed to be productive citizens should dominate the focus of education, then this data paves the way for massive funding and support.

President Obama appears to favor the latter as he included a “Preschool for All” initiative in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget, providing federal funding ($75 billion over the next 10 years) for universal Early Childhood Education programs.

Money, of course, is a prime motivator in educational decisions.  Data analysis on the Perry and Abecedarian studies showed a whopping lifetime return of $229,645 per student. Though the sample was small and narrowly focused on at-risk African American students, James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate from University of Chicago devised an economic technique that equalized the demographics and results.1

Although the quality and intensity of programs vary, “In any case, the data in all three programs demonstrate that a dollar invested in Early Childhood Education always yields a profit.”2

But what about those pesky pieces of data that nullify cognitive growth and literacy? No one seems to know what happens to a well prepared 5 year old who enters kindergarten cognitively ahead of the game and comes out of second grade cognitively behind.  Perhaps the Common Core Standards in Kindergarten and elementary grades will help educators teach more uniformly, with better focus on academic skills - or at least provide valid measures of assessment to help better understanding of where the students are consistently falling behind.

In the meantime, we have data and a dilemma – do we invest in Early Childhood Education solely for the purpose of reading, writing, and arithmetic?  Or do we invest in Early Childhood Education for the purpose of  improving the economy, reducing crime, and developing self worth?  Can’t we have both?   Hopefully, we can look beyond the test scores and beyond the dollar signs and find those nuggets in the data where we can see the faces behind the numbers and say, “here’s looking at YOU, kids!”


This is the second entry by Phyllis Magold in a series of perspectives on Early Childhood Education. You may also be interested in Bottoms Up! her previous entry in this series.

Additional Resources & Works Cited

1. Heckman, James J.. "The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children." The Heckman Equation.

2. Hollier, Dennis. "What's the ROI on Early Childhood Education Preschool Isn't Just About School." Hawaii Business. Feb 2013


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