A new study reveals varied results on the impact of publicly funded US preschool programs on student performance beyond early childhood.

“It’s settled that early childhood education is an essential component of any nation’s public policy; children are learning well before kindergarten, and parents are working,” says Jade Jenkins, associate professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, and coauthor of the study published in Science.

“What is less settled, however, is how much we should expect preschool to be shaping achievement and well-being later in life.”

The researchers examined evaluations of the Head Start program and public prekindergarten initiatives in Boston and Tennessee, discovering that while children saw academic benefits immediately after preschool, the long-term effects varied.

The findings highlight that not all early education programs guarantee favorable results, the authors say, stressing the need for more research on effective preschool interventions.

Two key studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects, respectively, have shaped common beliefs about early childhood education, and sparked significant interest in funding.

They showed that early education led to better scholastic outcomes, income levels, employment rates, and health, while reducing criminal behavior. However, these studies focused on projects more than five decades old, and current preschool initiatives should undergo modern assessments, the researchers note.

“The proven long-term success of early programs like Perry Preschool showed what’s possible with very intensive preschool programs. But policymakers need to know if lessons from Perry hold for today’s programs. Recent research shows that the answer appears to be ‘yes’ in some, but not all, cases,” says Greg Duncan, professor in the School of Education.

Given these mixed findings, he and his fellow authors recommend follow-up evaluations of existing random-assignment and lottery studies to learn whether early education programs correlate to successful outcomes in adulthood.

“The good news for society is that we have invested dramatically more over the past 50 years in programs designed to help young children and families,” says Drew Bailey, professor in the School of Education. “But with such improvements come practical challenges of balancing necessary redundancies in the system with unique opportunities for early education programs to support children’s development.”

Read the full article about early childhood education by Cara Capuano at Futurity.