New research from Duke shows that early childhood education programs have long-term positive impacts.

Four researchers from the Center for Child and Family Policy examined two of North Carolina’s early childhood programs: Smart Start and NC Pre-K, formerly called More at Four. They concluded that these interventions have had positive effects that endure through late elementary school. Early childhood education research is important for policymakers considering long-term investments, explained Kenneth Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy.

“[Smart Start and NC Pre-K] have been heralded nationally as examples of high quality, pioneering efforts,” Dodge said. “They represent the two kinds of approaches to early child care and education. The national child care community and state governments are looking to North Carolina to see if those programs have a positive impact and last a long time.”

The study's authors found that at average funding levels, students who had been through Smart Start and More at Four performed significantly better on standardized testing, had less need for special education and were less likely to be held back in school. 

In terms of instruction time, it was as if the students had an additional six months of reading and three months of math. Unlike some other studies, which have found “fadeout effects,” Duke’s study found enduring positive effects from early childhood programs.

To compare the effects of these programs, the study exploited two features of the programs—first, some North Carolina counties implemented the programs before others, and second, shifting state budget allocations created funding fluctuations. These variations allowed the researchers to compare children who participated in the early stages of the programs to those who did not, as well as examine the effects of different levels of funding. 

Helen Ladd, professor of public policy and economics, further explained their study’s research methodology.

“You might have a county that one year doesn’t have Smart Start funding and then the next year does,” she said. “So you compare two children who are very similar using statistics to tease out the effects of funding variations across time and counties.”

Using this methodology, the researchers found that both participating in the programs and a higher level of funding had positive effects on student achievement.

Clara Muschkin, associate research professor in the Sanford School, explained that pre-Kindergarten programs must have highly-trained teachers in order to be effective.

"The classroom size and the teacher to child ratio is very important as well," she said. "The use of evidence based curricula that are developmentally appropriate [is also important].”

Not only did the programs improve the future outcomes of those enrolled, but they also had positive impacts on the rest of the children. Dodge and his co-authors’ tentative explanation for these “spillover effects” was that teachers no longer had to spend as much time addressing behavior problems and could instead focus on teaching, since the students came to Kindergarten more ready to learn.

“The important point there is that for middle-income families who might wonder what’s in it for them to support a program that’s directed at low income children, the findings are pretty clear in showing that all children will benefit,” Dodge said.

However, Dodge described the political climate for primary and early childhood education as a “difficult battle,” referring to low preschool teacher salaries in North Carolina in comparison to other states. Ladd also lamented the funding cuts, recalling that North Carolina was a leader in childhood programs under Governor Jim Hunt in the 1990s and recommending that states invest more in early childhood programs.

Both Dodge and Muschkin explained ways that early childhood programs could and have attracted bipartisan support. Investments in early childhood education are cost-saving in the long run and help reduce inequality, Muschkin observed.

“These are all benefits that have appeals across the political spectrum,” Muschkin said.

Yu Bai, another researcher in the study who works in the Center for Child and Family Policy, could not be reached for comment.

Editor's note: This article was updated Nov. 29 at 11:30 p.m. to include information from Ladd.