The Abecedarian Research Project was an intensive research program designed to study the effect of high-quality educational child care on children from low-income families.
Researchers selected infants from low-income families who were found to be at particularly high risk for educational failure because of low maternal educational levels. The participants received full-time, high-quality educational intervention in a child care setting from their infancy until the age of 5. Each participant was individually prescribed specialized learning games and activities throughout each day that focused on social, emotional, and cognitive areas of development with particular emphasis on language.
Participants’ progress was monitored over time with follow-up studies conducted at various ages and with a final study of the original participants at age 21. Findings demonstrated that important, long-lasting benefits were associated with the early childhood program.
The project was initiated in 1972 at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill and was finalized according to plan in the mid-1980s in order to examine the continued effects on participants. The initial project was funded by grants from the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Branch of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development and from the State of North Carolina. The principal investigator of the original study was Craig Ramey, PhD.
Studies have shown that poverty in early childhood has long-lasting negative consequences for cognitive development and academic outcomes. Children in low-income families tend to lag behind their peers in the earliest school years, suggesting that they enter school at a disadvantage. University-based model programs and research by government organizations have attempted to understand and overcome these negative academic odds.
Most of these endeavors focused on the theory that by providing early intellectual stimulation to at-risk children, cognitive development would be enhanced and allow children to enter school better prepared to learn. This preparation would, in theory, increase the probability of early school success and eventually result in vocational achievement and positive social adaptation in adulthood.
Unfortunately, few early childhood programs were sufficiently well controlled to permit scientists to evaluate the extent to which long-term outcomes were attributable to the program itself. Researchers were able to assess short-term gains in cognitive development, and they did find improvement in academic performance; however, these gains began to dissipate 3 to 6 years after participants entered school.
The Abecedarian project differed from most other early childhood programs in that (1) it was a carefully controlled study in which half the participants were randomly assigned to receive early intervention in a high-quality child care setting and half were in a nontreated control group; (2) it began in early infancy, whereas other programs began at age 2 or older; and (3) treated children had 5 years of exposure to high-quality early education, whereas most other programs were of shorter duration. This degree of scientific control gave investigators greater confidence that differences between the treated and untreated individuals could be attributed to the intervention itself, rather than to differences among treated and untreated families.
Along with principal investigator Dr. Craig Ramey, Margaret Burchinal, PhD, adjunct professor, biostatistics, UNC acted as senior scientist and director of design and statistics. Other investigators included Martie Skinner, PhD, adjunct assistant sociology professor at UNC–Greensboro; Elizabeth P. Pungello, PhD; Barbara Wasik, PhD; and Oscar Barbarin, BA, MA, MS, PhD, Fellow, Preyer Distinguished Fellow for Strengthening Families, psychology, UNC. Joseph Sparling, PhD, and Isabelle Lewis were the codevelopers for the “Learning Games” curriculum.
One hundred eleven healthy infants whose average age was 4.4 months were selected for participation in the Abecedarian Research Project. Fifty-seven infants (the treatment group) were randomly assigned to participate 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year with programmed “learning games” designed to focus on cognitive and fine motor skills, language, and gross motor skills. They also received free diapers, food, and transportation and participated in academic, physical, and social enrichment activities. The remaining 54 infants (the control group) experienced either locally available child care or no specialized care.
When the children entered kindergarten, researchers further divided the control and treatment groups. A home and school resource teacher provided academic support to one half of each group, serving as a liaison between families and school officials for the first 3 years of school. Individualized curriculum packets helped parents of the selected families work with their children at home. This portion of the study was designed to determine the different effects of preschool and primary school interventions.
The social and intellectual development of all participants was measured at ages 3, 4, 5, 6½, and 8 years old with the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence tests. Math and reading achievement was measured at ages 8, 12, 15, and 21 using the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery.
Investigators completed a young-adult follow-up assessment of study participants. At age 21, cognitive functioning, academic skills, educational attainment, employment, parenthood, and social adjustment were measured. One hundred four of the original 111 infants (53 from the intervention group and 51 controls) were assessed.
Both the treated and untreated children were initially comparable with respect to scores on infant mental and motor tests. However, from the age of 18 months and through the completion of the child care program, children in the intervention group had significantly higher scores on mental tests than children in the control group. Follow-up cognitive assessments completed at ages 12 and 15 years showed that the intervention group continued to have higher average scores on mental tests. The treated children scored significantly higher on reading and math tests from the primary grades through middle adolescence.
The cognitive and academic benefits from this program are stronger than for most other early childhood programs. Enhanced language development appears to have been instrumental in raising cognitive test scores. As a bonus, mothers whose children participated in the program achieved higher educational and employment status than mothers whose children were not in the program.
A 15-year follow-up study was carried out. Treated children scored higher on reading and math tests through early adolescence, had a lower rate of grade retention (i.e., flunking or repeating a grade), and were less likely to need special education.
A 21-year follow-up study was performed testing 104 of the original participants. This follow-up study was funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the Department of Education, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The principal investigator for this study was Frances Campbell, PhD. Relative to their peers in the control group, the participants continued to have a lower rate of grade retention, were less likely to need special education, had higher reading scores, had higher math scores, were more likely to be in school, completed more years of school, were more likely to have attended a 4-year college, were more likely to be engaged in skilled jobs, and were more likely to postpone parenthood.
Young adults who received early educational intervention had significantly higher mental test scores from toddlerhood through age 21 than did untreated controls. Averaged over the age span tested, the mental test score results were considered educationally meaningful. Additional research in 2001 by Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, and Mann indicated a 51% reduction in maltreatment of children who attended the program, suggesting an overall positive effect on treated families.
Because poverty in early childhood has long-lasting negative consequences for cognitive development and academic outcomes, low-income children do not always achieve their highest potential. Full-time, year-round preschool child care for low-income families appears to be a positive factor in academic achievement. Thus, quality early childhood education can make a critical difference in the later success of these children and can provide long-term benefits both to the individual and to society.
Dr. Frances Campbell of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center has followed the participants through their adulthood, and as of this writing, has planned an age-30 follow-up report. Leonard Masse and W. Steven Barnett performed a cost-benefit analysis on the project and found that the benefits of the program outweighed the costs by a factor of 4.
And, in order to further appreciation of the results of the study and to disseminate their findings to parents, educators, and policy makers, original Abecedarian Research Project principal investigator Craig Ramey, PhD, and Sharon Ramey, PhD, completed a 5-year study of 10,000 children from kindergarten through third grade with an aim determining what contributes to a young child’s school success. A result of this study is their 1999 book, Going to School: How to Help Your Child Succeed, which discusses why the transition to school is such a significant issue and emphasizes the expectations of parents and educators associated with this transition.
The importance of high quality, educational child care from early infancy has been shown to improve the educational experience of disadvantaged children. The Abecedarian Research Project has provided scientific evidence that early childhood education significantly improves the scholastic success and educational attainments of disadvantaged children even into early adulthood.
- Alexander, L., & Entwisle, D. R. (1988). Achievement in the first 2 years of school: Patterns and processes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 53, Serial No. 218.
- American Youth Policy F (n.d.). Abecedarian program. Retrieved from http://www.aypf.org/rmaa/pdfs/Abecedarian.pdf
- Burchinal, M. , Campbell, F. A., Bryant, D. M., Wasik, B. H., & Ramey, C. T. (1997). Early intervention and mediating processes in cognitive performance of children of lowincome African American families. Child Development, 68,935–954.
- Campbell, F. A., & Ramey, T. (1994). Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: A follow-up study of children from low-income families. Child Development, 65, 684–698.
- Campbell, F. , & Ramey, C. T. (1995). Cognitive and school outcomes for high-risk African-American students at middle adolescence: Positive effects of early intervention. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 743–772.
- Campbell, F. , Pungello, E. P., Miller-Johnson, S., Burchinal, M.,
- & Ramey, C. T. (2001). The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology, 37, 231–242.
- Campbell, F. , Ramey, C. T., Pungello, E. P., Sparling, J., & Miller-Johnson, S. (2002). Early childhood education: Young adult outcomes from the Abecedarian Project. Applied Developmental Science, 6, 42–57.
- Carolina Abecedarian Project, http://www.fpg.unc.edu/~abc/ Lazar, , Darlington, R., Murray, H., Royce, J., & Snipper, A.
- (1982). Lasting effects of early education: A report from the consortium for longitudinal studies. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 47 (Serial No. 195).
- National Institute for Early Education Research. (n.d.). A benefit-cost analysis of the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention. Retrieved from http://nieer.org/docs/index .php?DocID=57
- Ramey, C. T., & Campbell, F. A. (1984). Preventive education for high-risk children: Cognitive consequences of the Carolina Abecedarian American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 88, 515–523.
- Ramey, T., & Campbell, F. A. (1991). Poverty, early childhood education, and academic competence: The Abecedarian experiment. In A. Huston (Ed.), Children reared in poverty (pp. 190–221). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Ramey, T., Campbell, F. A., Burchinal, M., Skinner, M. L., Gardner, D. M., & Ramey, S. L. (2000). Persistent effects of early intervention on high-risk children and their mothers. Applied Developmental Science, 4, 2–14.
- Ramey, L., & Ramey, C. T. (1999). Going to school: How to help your child succeed: A handbook for parents of children 3 to 8. New York: Goddard Press.