The broad agenda outlined in President Obama's State of the Union address includes a proposal for the largest federal expansion of early childhood programs in half a century. To support its case, the White House has cited research demonstrating the importance of early childhood development in laying the foundation for success later in life, as well as the potential for high-quality programs to yield a return on investment for society at large.
With the administration's second-term agenda laid out, it's time to craft the specifics of the president's proposal. Research can guide the way toward the best outcomes. The scope of RAND's research in this area is significant—we've evaluated programs and reviewed research studies for hundreds of programs across the birth-to-five continuum and conducted cost-benefit analyses of many of these early childhood programs. Repeatedly, our experts are asked, “If we expand early childhood programs, which one should we choose?”
This turns out to be the wrong question. Economic analysis suggests that net societal benefits are greatest when policymakers support a “portfolio” of programs, rather than employing a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
There are many reasons why a “portfolio” approach produces greater total benefits:
- Communities and families have different needs. Some battle maternal depression, others face family violence, and others still are challenged by a childhood disability.
- The programs that effectively address these needs are different. They serve different families, take place at different ages and in different locations, and employ different curricula and staff.
- Communities' unique characteristics play a role. For example, an evidence-based Pre-K program in a rural community may not be effective due to low attendance if parents have to drive an hour each way to pick up and drop off their kids. Similarly, a program that deploys nurses to visit families may not be plausible in an area experiencing a nursing shortage.
An optimal approach to strategically expanding access to early childhood programs is one that helps states and communities identify evidence-based approaches that address their particular needs, within the context of their characteristics. In addition to a few well-known programs, such as Early Head Start and Nurse Family Partnership, RAND's Promising Practices Network lists dozens of successful early childhood programs.
Research can also inform a “portfolio” approach to early childhood investments by providing guidance on how to select interventions that address communities' needs and take community resources into account. The Getting To Outcomes® framework, for instance, has been shown to increase communities' capacity to plan, implement, and evaluate program expansions within community contexts for a decade.
Research has played a prominent role in the White House's proposal to expand early childhood programs. It can also help shape the specifics of the expansion. In order to achieve the best outcomes from these investments, findings should be used to develop a portfolio of evidence-based practices that meet the unique needs of states and communities.
Rebecca Kilburn is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on February 21, 2013.