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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

April 8, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Tracking kids over decades shows effect of early-childhood lessons

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

There’s plenty of talk these days about the virtues of early-childhood education, and most of it, predictably, comes via education experts. But when medical types chime in, it can add important heft to cost-benefit analyses. Sort of like when scientists began to confirm that climate change is real.

Last month Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician and health policy researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine, happened upon a 30-year study of early childhood interventions that, as he put it “just blows me away.”

You don’t often hear medical types speak in such terms.

Between 1972 and 1977, researchers randomly studied 111 children, from birth to age 8, and followed up decades later to see whether certain education and medical treatments in childhood reaped significant implications when those kids became adults. (The study was published in Science Magazine, which requires a subscription. But you can read a summary here and look over some data here.)

The kids, all of them from poor families in rural North Carolina, were divided into two groups. One half received language lessons, social stimulation and emotional guidance — that is, high-quality daycare — eight hours a day, for their first five years. They also got two meals, a snack, regular check-ups and medical treatment when ill. The other group received no special attention.

Later, for children ages 5 to 8, caregivers focused on improving kids’ math and reading skills by working with their parents at home.

After these subjects reached adulthood, at about age 30, the researchers checked back. They found that children who had received services – valued at $16,000 per child – were less likely drink to alcohol as teenagers, more likely to have health insurance and at significantly reduced risk for many costly health problems like high blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease.

“I am sure the attacks against this study will come in the usual flavors,” writes Carroll on his blog, “The Incidental Economist.” “’It’s a small study. It was a long time ago. These programs cost money and we don’t know the cost of the benefits.’ I’m literally rolling my eyes at this.”

Randomized controlled trials are difficult and costly, Carroll points out, and a study of 111 children is not to be ignored.

“You try doing follow-up on people in a study for DECADES. I’m in awe of these researchers,” he adds. “I know we love ‘medical’ interventions, but sometimes the best thing we can do is not ‘medical’. Studies like these show that hardship in early life has long-term implications. Studies like this show us we can do something about it.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: early ed

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