Economic Facts Affecting Your Child’s Education | Fact 12

Early childhood interventions yield benefits years later


The Hamilton Project examines the long-term beneficial effects of interventions during preschool and up to third grade. 

[Related: How Much Should You Spend on College and Student Loans?]

Fact 12. Early childhood interventions can raise high school graduation rates.

On average, a black child entering kindergarten scores 0.66 standard deviations in math (and 0.40 in reading) below his or her white peers. By comparison, the income achievement gap is even worse: Upon entering kindergarten, the difference in scores between a child from a household in the 10th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a household in the 90th percentile was more than two times greater than the black-white achievement gap.

Furthermore, the income achievement gap remains as the child advances through school. The persistence of these gaps suggests that intervening early in life may have lasting benefits, and that a number of early life interventions, as shown by figure 12 below, may help children to develop the foundational cognitive and emotional skills needed to successfully reach later milestones, such as high school graduation.

Three programs focused on preschool-aged children have substantially improved high school graduation rates, especially among students at greater risk of dropping out. Head Start, the federally funded program targeting poor children between the ages of 3 and 5 with preschool, health, and social services, increased high school graduation rates among recipients by up to 20 percentage points, depending on the cohort and demographic group studied.

Head Start particularly benefited black and Hispanic males, increasing their high school graduation rates by 5.5 and 18.1 percentage points, respectively. Furthermore, it is estimated that the Perry Preschool intervention, which provided high-quality preschool to black children, had positive effects on a number of outcomes, including increased earnings and lower rates of crime among participants. Preschool attendees graduated from high school at rates 20 percentage points higher than non-attendees.

Targeting somewhat older children, the Tennessee Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR experiment investigated the effects of being assigned to a small class size from kindergarten through third grade. Black and low-income males experienced particularly sizeable gains in high school graduation rates from assignment to smaller classes.

In addition, early-life interventions outside of school settings have been shown to increase high school graduation rates. Recent work on cohorts born in the 1960s and 1970s has shown that access to the Food Stamp Program from the time of a child’s conception through age 5 increased high school graduation rates by 18 percentage points. The success of these childhood programs points to the lasting benefits of intervening well before students enter high school.

Bottom line: Early childhood settings matter, so be very picky about who cares for your child while you’re at work.