David Sojourner

Closing the Achievement Gap with Early Education

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Steve Rudolph


Aaron Sojourner—Assistant Professor for Work and Organizations

You might not expect a labor economist would study early childhood education. However, that’s just what the Carlson School’s Aaron Sojourner does.

“Gaps in the value of contributions different individuals make to our economy and society are largely determined by skills and habits they have at age 18,” he says. “And more and more evidence is showing that differences which exist at age 18 can be causally connected to influences determined before age five.”

Previous studies have shown children from low-income families are more than a standard deviation below their peers from higher-income families on kindergarten entry reading and math skills, and our K-12 system does not close this gap.

With that in mind, Sojourner and co-author Professor Greg J. Duncan of UC-Irvine, studied the impact that an intensive, age zero-to-three intervention would have on reducing the achievement gap. The intervention consisted of weekly home visits during the child’s first year of life, followed by two years of free, full-day childcare.

Analyzing a unique dataset—the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP), which offered full-day early education to a randomly chosen subset of 985 children recruited at birth in eight hospitals across the country—the researchers found some of the strongest evidence to date on the value of early education.

“By the time they were age three, children from low-income families who were randomly assigned to the intervention group were doing as well as those from high-income families in the control group. The achievement gap had closed,” says Sojourner.

Even more surprising was the lasting impact of these early childhood investments.

“At age five, two years after the children left the program, 72 percent of the gap remained closed,” he says. “Five years after the program ended, at age eight, three-fifths of the IQ and math achievement gap was still closed. Results at age 18 were also consistent with this, but less precise due to sample attrition.”

In contrast, the effect of the intervention on children from higher-income families was smaller and less persistent.

The quality of the education provided in IHDP did come at a hefty price—approximately a two-year cost of $48,000 per child when adjusted for inflation. However, that total dropped to $29,000 when costs for transportation and children with disabilities were excluded.

“If you want to raise adult productivity, this research suggests we would be wise to invest in the early years, especially for children from disadvantaged families,” Sojourner says. “What happens in those first three years has an outsized impact.”

Sojourner’s research,”Can Intensive Early Childhood Intervention Programs Eliminate Income-Based Cognitive and Achievement Gaps?” appeared in The Journal of Human Resources (2013).

“Often, to make things more equal, we have to make them less efficient.” Sojourner says. “In contrast, with early childhood investments, putting resources toward the development of disadvantaged children promotes both efficiency and equality.”