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Nevertheless, researchers continue to explore how to sustain the benefits that early childhood education (ECE) generates. In Robert C. Carr’s paper, “The Benefits of Early Childhood Education Can Persist in the Long Run” (jointly published in September by the Hunt Institute and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University) the key word is can. Ample evidence points to the boost children get by starting their education early, but a review of the research reveals “mixed long-term impacts.” A lot depends on subsequent teaching and the environment in which it happens.
To explore these issues, Dr. Dan Wuori of the Hunt Institute moderated an Early Efforts conversation among:
Dr. Craig Ramey, Virginia Tech
Dr. Alison Gopnik, the University of California at Berkeley
Dr. Francis Pearman, Stanford University
Dr. Robert Carr, Duke University
Here are our takeaways:
1. Early childhood is the brain’s R&D phase. Gopnik described young children as amazing learners. “They explore,” she said. “They consider possibilities. They go out into the world and consider what it is like much more than grown-ups do.” Nurturing adults can make the most of this phase by stimulating imagination, creativity and possibility; adversity shortens it.
Just because the years are a period of rapid learning, Gopnik said, some educators assume pre-K should be more like “school,” but she maintained that social and emotional support is just as important as academic skills.
2. The Abecedarian project continues to yield benefits. Ramey described the Carolina Abecedarian Project as a randomized control trial that measures the impact of providing full-time, high-quality educational intervention from infancy through age 5. The landmark study continues to shape the field of early education.
Last year, filmmaker Carlota Nelson captured its influence in her documentary Brain Matters. “If anything,” Dr. Ramey said during the webinar, “we’ve underestimated lifespan long-term effects.” These include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of adult brains that show structural changes in the regions for abstract thinking and language acquisition as well as benefits that accrue to the children of the adults who participated decades earlier.
4. High-quality kindergarten is necessary to sustain the advances of preschool. When policymakers discuss early learning, they frequently frame the benefits in terms of kindergarten readiness, but the lasting benefits also matter, and these only develop when quality teaching and school environments remain in place.
“While high-quality ECE programs can promote foundational skills and dispositions for learning,” Dr. Carr’s paper explains, “children’s acquisition of foundational skills will naturally plateau after they have mastered those skills.”
Therefore, the impact of high-quality ECE on foundational skills diminishes during elementary school (see graph, right). When done right, kindergarten enhances the preschool effect. Dr. Pearman’s complementary research conducted in Tennessee describes “Sustaining Environments”—involving both highly effective teachers and high-quality schools—and finds that only about 9 percent of children got what they needed in kindergarten, and without it, the pre-K boost faded by third grade.
5. The consequences go beyond education. Gopnik provided further context to the conversation, noting that what happens outside school also affects children’s fates. Policy supports for parents have a symbiotic relationship with education, contributing to “a sense of alternatives and things you can do beyond your narrow experiences.”
Dr. Ramey, who began his Abecedarian research in 1972, when he was 26 years old, declared, “This effort is not for the fainthearted or the ill-prepared,” adding that “the future of democracy and our capitalistic competitive economy” were at stake. It’s a life’s mission worth fighting for.
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.