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Journal Issue: Long-Term Outcomes Of Early Childhood Programs Volume 5 Number 3 Winter 1995

Long-Term Outcomes of Early Childhood Programs: Analysis and Recommendations
Deanna S. Gomby Mary B. Larner Carol S. Stevenson Eugene M. Lewit Richard E. Behrman


In recent years, public investment in early childhood programs has burgeoned. Funding for Head Start has increased from $404 million in 1974 to $3.3 billion in 1994.2 In 1992, states provided about $665 million for prekindergarten programs to serve children deemed at risk of school failure.3 The federal government spent close to $1.8 billion in 1993 to help low-income children attend child care programs,4 and another $2.5 billion in tax credits to help families of all income levels purchase child care.5 Legislation in 1993 authorized close to $1 billion in federal funding for family support and family preservation programs over five years, and several states have implemented statewide family support programs. Millions of children and families are assisted each year by these programs.6 Despite these large allocations and the numbers of children already being served, organizations such as the National Governors' Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Committee for Economic Development, and the National Commission on Children have all called for additional investment in early childhood programs.7

Calls for such investment are usually premised on the assumption that the early childhood years present a special opportunity to open a door to a child's future. Intervening early in the lives of disadvantaged children is assumed to provide the best opportunity to forestall later problems and to ready children for school and life. This assumption is bolstered by evidence that early childhood programs have produced long-term cognitive and social benefits for the children who enrolled in them.

This field is not without controversy, however. Questions about the long-term benefits of early childhood programs surfaced first in a 1969 study that questioned whether children who attended Head Start benefitted in a lasting way.8 Later studies demonstrated benefits on a range of practical indicators of success in school and life for children who attended model early childhood programs,9,10 but interpretation of those findings has been a subject of debate.11-14 The recent growth in public investment in a varied array of early childhood programs (preschool education, child care, and family support programs) raises a new set of issues about critical program components to ensure effectiveness, about the capacity of large-scale programs to produce desired benefits, and about the lack of coherence among programs that have different objectives but serve the same children and families.

Today's concerns about the evidence of long-term benefits from early childhood programs can be organized around five general questions:

1. What are the long-term outcomes of early childhood programs?

The evidence for long-term benefits in the evaluation literature is not uniformly positive, so questions are often raised about what outcomes can reliably be produced by different program types.

2. What can be learned from the experience of the past three decades to help design more effective programs?

If different programs do yield different long-term results, then perhaps those varying results can provide lessons to guide program design and to help policymakers prioritize investments among competing program types.

3. Can early childhood programs provided in a routine manner on a large scale yield the expected benefits?

If the level of funding and quality of services provided by the large-scale public programs do not measure up to the quality of the carefully designed, model programs that yielded long-term outcomes, perhaps the public programs will not be able to produce the same positive outcomes.

4. How applicable are lessons learned from programs that operated 20 or 30 years ago to today's world?

The world for children has changed in significant ways: poor children are more likely to live in single-parent families and in hostile communities, and more mothers are in the workforce. How well suited are program approaches designed in the 1960s and 1970s to the needs of today's disadvantaged children and families?

5. How can policymakers increase the coherence of the early childhood service system?

The attention given to disadvantaged children has spawned a sprawling array of programs, all designed to enhance the lives of children and families and all vying for the same shrinking pool of public dollars. It falls to policymakers to identify options for linking and integrating programs to better serve children and families.

Given the significance of these questions about early childhood programs, it is timely to explore again the long-term effects that different types of early childhood programs have on children and their families. This journal issue reviews studies of preschool programs, family support programs, and children's experiences in schools, placing them in a broad historical, international, and public policy context.

The results of the methodologically strongest studies in a very vast literature indicate that early childhood programs can have substantial effects on children's lives years after their involvement in the programs. For example, such programs have led to enhanced school achievement, higher earnings, and decreased involvement with the criminal justice system. Appropriately designed programs have helped parents strengthen their parenting skills and move toward economic self-sufficiency. However, while all of those benefits can be achieved through participation in these programs, they are not always achieved.

Following a brief description of the major types of early childhood programs, the remainder of this Analysis and Recommendations reviews what is known about the effects of early childhood programs on children and their families and considers how those effects come about and why effectiveness varies across programs. It revisits the five policy questions raised above and offers recommendations concerning the steps public and private decision makers should take to shape early childhood programs and policies.