Early Childhood Education and Development: A Meta-Analysis

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW1.3.04 (Tower One)
Thomas van Huizen, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Janneke Plantenga, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) has become a major policy issue. Various studies point out that ECEC leads to a variety of social and economic benefits, including improved child development , lower poverty rates and higher levels of intergenerational mobility. This study focuses on the effects of ECEC on child development and later life outcomes. While the early literature is dominated by studies from the psychological discipline, assessing the effects of randomized control trials in the US, more recently the topic has gained considerable attention from economists. Economists generally consider ECEC as an early investment in human capital which may have substantial returns. These recent economic studies tend to have a different scope and generally use different methodologies: they focus more on universal expansion of child care arrangements in Europe and more often exploit natural experiments instead of randomized trials.

Although a growing body of research indicates that ECEC has positive effect on cognitive and non-cognitive child development and translates into better education and labor market outcomes, the evidence overall is not conclusive. Some studies find positive effects in the short-run, but no or limited effects in the long-run. Other studies point out insignificant or even negative effects of child care arrangements. Universal child care expansions, currently discussed in many countries, may involve substantial risks given the potential negative effects on child development.

To examine under which conditions ECEC may have positive or negative effects, this paper performs a meta-analysis. We exploit estimates from over 60 studies published since 1990 in psychological and economic journals. We focus on five key characteristics of these studies: 1) whether the programs are universal or targeted towards disadvantaged children; 2) the starting age of the ECEC arrangements (below or above the age of three); 3) the timing of the outcome measured (short-term/early childhood; medium-term/childhood and adolescence; long-term/adulthood); 4) the methodology (randomized control trial, natural experiment); 5) the quality of the ECEC arrangement.

The results from our meta-regressions indicate that the gains of ECEC are concentrated within the group of disadvantaged children. Furthermore, child care programs are more likely to be harmful if they start at an early age. Moreover, the timing of outcomes seem not to matter substantially: although there seems to be some evidence that the (positive) effects on development fade away among disadvantaged children, overall the gains of ECEC seem to translate into better education and labor market outcomes. Concerning the methodology, studies exploiting natural experiments are somewhat more likely to find negative effects of ECEC. Finally, the quality of the child care programs seems to matter significantly. The findings provide a strong case for investing in high-quality targeted early childhood education and care. However, a universal expansion may lead to either positive or negative outcomes, depending on the age of enrollment and the quality of ECEC.