The founder of a decades-long scientific study that has proved the enduring benefits of early education recently applauded President Barack Obama’s call for universal access to high-quality preschool in the United States.

“Investing in high-quality early education has dramatic and sustained payoffs not just for the children directly involved, but for society as well,” said Craig Ramey, the originator and founding principal investigator of the Abecedarian Project, a scientific study of the potential benefits of early childhood education for economically disadvantaged children.

“Think of it as a kind of educational compound interest,” added Ramey. “From the moment a child enters kindergarten, the focus on achievement begins. When children are prepared, their early successes lead to more successes. But when they’re not prepared, a lifelong struggle can begin. The spiral can be upward, or it can be downward. That’s the achievement gap that President Obama was describing last week in both his State of the Union address and his remarks in Georgia.”

Ramey, a pioneer in understanding the factors that contribute to children’s early cognitive development, is now a professor and distinguished research scholar at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. There he provides scientific leadership to the Louisiana Department of Education’s efforts to assess its pre-kindergarten program. He also remains active with the Abecedarian Project.

The Abecedarian Project has been heralded for providing innovative insights into the factors that contribute to positive outcomes for at-risk children who receive intensive support in the early years of life. Ramey launched the project in 1972 as a carefully controlled scientific study of the potential benefits of early childhood education for children from low-income families who were at risk of developmental delays or academic failure. Follow-up studies have consistently shown that the children who received early educational intervention did better academically, culminating in greater educational achievements as adults.

The most recent report from the project, published in the journal Developmental Psychology last year, found that, decades later, Abecedarian Project participants were also far more likely than the control group to have been consistently employed and far less likely to have used public assistance.

The benefits of early education are so scientifically defensible that policymakers should capitalize on Obama’s initiative, Ramey said. “The challenge is to find ways to provide that education so children – and society – can reap the benefits.”

Share this story