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New Research: Early Education's Influence on the Achievement Gap

In yesterday’s House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing, “The Foundation for Success: Discussing Early Childhood Education and Care in America,” Delaware Office of Early Learning Executive Director Harriet Dichter was asked about the relationship between early childhood investments and the achievement gap. Her answer was direct:

Throughout her testimony, Dichter repeatedly referred to the large and growing evidence base for making high quality early education investments. Recently published research from professors Greg J. Duncan (University of California) and Aaron Sojourner (Minnesota) goes directly to the question she was asked today. Their title says it all: “Can Intensive Early Childhood Intervention Programs Eliminate Income-Based Cognitive and Achievement Gaps?”**

The simple answer: Yes. Absolutely.

The researchers projected that the program could—if made widely available to low-income families in the United States—"eliminate income-based gaps in IQ at age three."

Duncan and Sojourner examined data from the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP) to track its effects on the achievement gap at three, five, and eight years old. The program was intended to serve low-birth-weight infants. It provided families with weekly home visits for a year and biweekly visits for the next two years, high-quality child care for two- and three-year-old children, as well as ongoing parent support groups. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the approach was modeled on the famous Abecedarian curriculum.

Duncan and Sojourner used statistical controls to use the random sample of infants that received the program to project its effects for low-income children across the United States. They found that "the IHDP program boosted the cognitive ability of low-income children much more than the cognitive ability of higher-income children." In fact, they projected that the program could—if made widely available to low-income families in the United States—"eliminate income-based gaps in IQ at age three." Their results suggested that these effects would fade somewhat over time, but would remain substantial in later years: were the program universal, the high/low-income IQ and achievement gap at age eight would be one-third to three-quarters erased.

The authors note that these numbers reflect the program’s efficacy at its current size. Expanding these effects across the country would require a challenging implementation process. This should be obvious: IHDP was a tiny pilot program applied to less than one thousand students. Any attempt to extend it nationwide would face serious obstacles to maintaining quality standards.

That said, their research found considerable effects. Even if nationwide expansion diluted the program’s effects somewhat, they would very likely still be large enough to justify the investment.

While pre-K is “having its moment” in the political sun these days, studies like Duncan and Sojourner’s provide a useful reminder that early education doesn’t begin (or end) at four-years-old. Truly transformative results for underserved children require an early start and comprehensive alignment with high-quality programs from birth to age eight.

**(Note: the article was published in the fall 2013 issue of The Journal of Human Resources, but other drafts have been kicking around for some time now—here’s Tim Bartik’s response to an earlier working paper version).