Ashley Qiang
Urban Institute
UI Associate
Urban Institute
Project Associate

The state of the science in early childhood education interventions and pay for success

July 21, 2016 - 10:39am

Early childhood education (ECE) programs, such as high-quality preschool and pre-kindergarten, can make a big difference in children’s lives, even after the programs themselves are over. Because of their long-term benefits, ECE programs are generating a lot of interest in the pay for success (PFS) field. Of the 11 PFS projects already launched, two are scaling evidence-based ECE programs, and even more are in the works.

To help state and local governments and other stakeholders use PFS to scale ECE programs, we created the Pay for Success Early Childhood Education Toolkit—a collaborative effort between Urban’s Pay for Success Initiative, Urban Institute experts, and external partners. This week, we released the first three papers in the six-paper toolkit. The first report in the toolkit, The State of the Science on Early Childhood Interventions, provides a brief overview of what we know about ECE programs.

Strong evidence is at the heart of any PFS project. Evidence informs PFS project design by helping governments understand the outcomes that are likely to result from an ECE intervention. Armed with this knowledge, stakeholders can select programs that are the most likely to positively impact their communities.

The evidence behind ECE interventions

One way to understand what the evidence says about an ECE intervention is to think about which outcomes—or developmental “domains” —a program has been shown to impact.  In 1995, the National Education Goals Panel defined five domains of early development and learning that define school readiness:

  • Approaches toward learning including skills such as task persistence and attention that encourage children to engage with the world around them—for example, when a four-year-old keeps working with a puzzle even when it is challenging, asks the teacher for help, and displays pride when he or she successfully completes the puzzle.
  • Cognition and general knowledge including memory, reasoning, problem solving, and math skills—think of a four-year-old who can count ten blocks and can order the blocks by size.
  • Language development in areas such as speaking, writing, literacy, and vocabulary—such as a four-year-old starting to recognize and write the letters of the alphabet, take turns in a conversation, or identify rhyming words. 
  • Physical well-being and motor development, encompassing gross and fine motor skills as well as health, safety, and nutrition—imagine a three-year-old who demonstrates increasing control of large muscles by hopping on one foot, throwing and catching a ball, or climbing up a ladder on a slide.
  • Social and emotional development. This includes the ability to form and maintain relationships with adults and peers, express feelings appropriately, and understand others’ feelings—such as a three-year-old who plays cooperatively with classmates.

These domains are highly interdependent, so stakeholders should choose interventions that address all of them. Focusing on only one domain ignores the complexity and interconnectedness of early development and learning.

What does the evidence show?

The available research shows the largest and most consistent effects of ECE programs in short-run cognitive knowledge and language development domains (e.g. math and reading). Long-term evidence is more limited, but some evaluations have demonstrated ongoing impacts on cognitive and language ability into the early elementary grades. Other longitudinal findings show that children who received high-quality ECE had higher rates of high school graduation, higher earnings, and improved health.

The evidence also suggests that the costs of ECE programs are outweighed by the long-term benefits to young children, taxpayers, and society. For example, one cost-benefit analysis estimated that a preschool program in Washington State would have an average return of $5.19 for every $1.00 spent.

What are the implications for stakeholders?

Part of using evidence is understanding whether the results of past evaluations can be generalized to new locations and populations. Research can also help identify which program characteristics are most important to consider when scaling an ECE program. For example, intensive curricula and strong teacher-child interactions seem to matter a lot for positive outcomes. Other program features, such as ongoing professional development for teachers, also seem to matter, but more research is needed to understand which elements actually cause beneficial outcomes.

As interest in expanding access to ECE grows, PFS can offer additional resources that complement existing funds, support innovation, and ensure resources are allocated to the most effective program models. Understanding the evidence behind existing interventions is an important step toward designing a strong PFS project. By building on what we already know, PFS can help more children succeed and can add to our understanding of what works in ECE. 

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.