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February 21, 2013

RAND Researchers Discuss Early Childhood Development

by Joseph Dougherty

Providing high-quality early childhood development opportunities, especially to at-risk youth, can go a long way toward helping children succeed in school and the workplace, RAND researcher Lynn Karoly said during a media call this week.

“High-quality early learning programs can improve school readiness, particularly for disadvantaged children,” said Karoly, a senior economist focusing on child policy, costs and benefits of early childhood programs.

Karoly was one of four RAND experts speaking to media about President Obama's call in his State of the Union address to find ways to increase the number of American children with access to early childhood development and early childhood education programs.

Researcher Rebecca Kilburn said policymakers need to ask the right questions before finding the correct answers to childhood development.

“People want to know: If we're going to expand early childhood programs, which one should we choose?,” said Kilburn, a senior economist and director of the RAND Promising Practices Network on Children, Families and Communities. “Economic analysis suggests that this is the wrong question. Net societal benefits are greatest when a portfolio of programs are offered rather than picking the 'one best' program.” Kilburn also wrote a separate blog post on this topic.

Karoly said a key challenge is to help those families who most need these developmental and education opportunities to use them. Nationally, 55 percent of four-year-olds whose mother is a high school dropout attend preschool, while 87 percent of their counterparts whose mothers have a college degree attend preschool. “As a result, we almost already have universal preschool for children who come from advantaged families,” she said. “The children who could potentially benefit most, those families with lower incomes and fewer resources, those are the children who are least likely to be in preschool programs today.”

Gail Zellman, a senior research psychologist focusing on early childhood education, said it's important that the programs made available to children are of high quality. Lower-quality programs, she said, can actually diminish child outcomes and often fall short in helping children get the largest developmental gains.

“Quality is rarely uniform, but quality rating and improvement systems are expanding and are being implemented in most states today,” Zellman said. “States are putting money into program ratings that systems guide quality improvement efforts.”

Anita Chandra, a senior policy researcher and Research Department Director of the RAND Behavioral and Policy Sciences Department, said policymakers should consider how early childhood programs support social and emotional development and ensure that these programs are integrating all of the systems that care for young children, not simply preschool.

“While the President's plan addresses many important aspects of early childhood education, it will be important for us to remember all of the prenatal, family, and environmental factors that affect a child's ability and readiness to learn,” Chandra said.

Joe Dougherty