Evidence-based early childhood programs such as prekindergarten, home visiting, and child care have the potential to change children’s lives and trajectories. Commonly cited research also estimates a return on investment of 7 to 13 percent for early childhood programs. However, challenges with scaling up these programs from an original research or evaluation setting to a broader population—and in different circumstances—threaten their ability to realize this potential. A growing body of research aims to identify factors that threaten the successful scaling of programs, as well as strategies to overcome those threats and ensure that children and families get the full range of benefits from early childhood programs.
The early childhood years are a critical time for supporting children’s cognitive and emotional development. From birth to age 3, for example, children’s brains form over 1 million neural connections each second. Children who participate in high-quality programs during their early childhood years have been found to experience positive long-term outcomes such as higher rates of education completion, lower criminal justice system involvement, and lower rates of substance use.
Although research studies have shown great potential, not all early childhood programs show the same positive outcomes when scaled. In other words, what works in a tightly controlled research setting or a specific evaluation setting may not work the same in a real-world setting with outside factors that cannot be as controlled. Recent work, from researchers at the University of Chicago’s TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health and their collaborators, identifies four key factors that might account for differences between initial research and evaluation outcomes and scaled outcomes.
Research that does not include or explore information about scaling limits the nation’s ability to make effective, efficient investments in early childhood programs. Recent federal investments have increased funding for early care and education initiatives, and legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has infused even more funding into early childhood education. In addition, President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan calls for further financial support. If practitioners and policymakers have better information and a greater understanding of how to increase the chances that implemented programs will successfully support children across communities and settings at a large scale, then publicly funded programs have a better chance of achieving their goals around supporting positive child outcomes.
A recent book—The Scale-Up Effect in Early Childhood & Public Policy: Why Interventions Lose Scale and What We Can Do About It—and an associated policy brief explore threats to scaling and solutions to these challenges. In addition, the book and brief identify various ways that policymakers can mitigate threats to successful scale-up. For example:
Maggie Kane authored a chapter in The Scale-Up Effect in Early Childhood & Public Policy. A former Child Trends employee, Lauren Supplee, also worked on the book as one of its three editors.
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