The independent news organization of Duke University

Investments in early education paying off, study says

Thanks to two state-run programs that provide early education funding to low-income families, third graders in North Carolina are scoring higher on standardized tests and are less likely to be placed in special education, according to a recent study conducted by Duke researchers.

Kenneth Dodge, director of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy, conducted the study with Helen Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and a professor of economics at Duke, and Clara Muschkin, director of Duke’s Children in Contemporary Society certificate program, to determine through their research whether money put into More at Four and Smart Start resulted in positive outcomes for all children in participating counties.

“We are interested as researchers and policy analysts in whether the investment that the state of North Carolina has made in early childhood initiatives yields positive dividends,” Dodge said.

More at Four, implemented as a pilot program in 2001 and expanded to 23 counties in 2004, provides qualified low-income families with money to send their children to high-quality preschool. Smart Start, initiated in 1993 and expanded statewide by 1999, provides funds aimed at offsetting the costs of child care and improving health and family support services for children from birth to age five. Since their inception, spending has averaged $1,250 per child per program.

According to the results, both programs resulted in higher math and reading standardized test scores and a 10 percent lower probability of special education placement among current third graders—and not just the ones who qualified for the programs. The researchers said non-participating students benefitted from a “spill-over effect.” In other words, Dodge said, participating students were less likely to need special attention, enabling teachers to devote attention “more broadly to other children.”

While previous studies of these programs compared enrolled children to their classmates from within the same counties, Muschkin said she and her colleagues based their comparison on dollar allocation. The study sought to determine whether increased funding for the programs—some counties received more dollars per capita than others—resulted in higher tests scores and lower special education placement overall.

“Most programs track the progress of children who have actually participated in that program. We are looking instead at the impact of investment at the community level and at what that impact will be for all children residing in that community,” Muschkin said.

The study also confirmed the theory that More at Four and Smart Start complement one another.

“Each program has individual effects that together provide more benefit than one alone,” Muschkin said. “If you help the students who are most disadvantaged it’s going to lead to a better classroom environment once children enter the public school system.”

The study concluded that $1,000 of investment per child in any particular county results in benefits equivalent to two months of schooling, she added.

Tracy Zimmerman, communications director for Smart Start, said the Duke study proves the program’s effectiveness.

“[Smart Start] was created to solve the problem that children were coming to school not prepared to learn. We see from these results that clearly Smart Start makes a difference and it does so for all children in the community. It’s pretty exciting,” she said.

The researchers plan to expand their ongoing analyses to include health and behavior outcomes. Muschkin said the team will extend their study to analyze student performance through graduation.

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