Frances Campbell was a station-wagon mom in North Carolina, running her kids around town, when she got a part-time position to help with a scientific study on the benefits of early childhood education for poor children.
The study took about 100 infants — as young as three weeks old and most no more than six months — and randomly assigned them to a control group or treatment group to study their cognitive development. The treatment group received full-time day care for six to eight hours including meals, five days a week, until they were 5 years old. The control group received nutritional supplements and access to health care — and nothing more.
People like Campbell played games, cooed and talked to the babies in the treatment group. Caretakers watched their head control and dangled red toy rings in front of the babies to track their eye movement, watching for cognitive advancement. "You can talk to a baby and say, 'Hi, Sweetie,' and his breathing will change," says Campbell with her slight Carolina drawl. "If you say 'Hi, Sweetie' and he just lies there and don't get a reaction, that can be a sign of delayed development."
The year Campbell began working on the project was 1972, and 42 years later, Campbell is now a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's 81 years old and still doing research on early childhood education, which has become her life's work. "It really hooked me," she says, "I'm still trying to put it down." She and others have continued to track the lives of those original infant subjects in what has become known as the "Abecedarian Project."
The findings have been striking to researchers like Campbell: Members of the care group were four times more likely to graduate from college, but perhaps more strikingly, they are healthier. A new study, published in the journal Science, led by James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, reports that the care group has significantly lower rates of high blood pressure and obesity.
The news offers evidence that childhood education — from the earliest age — can have striking improvements on success and lifelong health.
Many of the children in the Abecedarian treatment group were born to low-income mothers who didn't have adequate childcare while they were at work, and many American families still struggle to provide early child care and education for their children. Fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"If parents can stay at home, that's wonderful. The reality is that most parents can’t," says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood education advocacy group. "There is so little infant and toddler child care, and it's very expensive — people don't want to face that," she says.
The Obama administration has been pushing for government-funded preschool for 4-year-olds to address the lack of affordable early childcare, but studies like the one in Science indicate that a child's education begins much earlier.
Campbell says that cognitive development, especially for at-risk children, needs to begin as early as possible. "One of my big takeaways is that if you've waited until age 5, that's too late," she says. The study argues that many of the skills for successful adult life are learned in infancy and the first few years of life. The children showed little difference as babies, says Campbell, but as early as age 3 their cognitive abilities began to diverge.
In a follow-up study at age 30, the care group was 42 percent more likely to have been employed for at least 16 months of the previous two years (75 percent of the Abecedarian group vs. 53 percent of the control group). They were almost four times more likely to have graduated from college. A similar program that provided early education to 3- and 4-year olds in Michigan, known as the Perry Preschool Program, found that as adults the subjects were almost half as likely to have committed a crime and had a 44 percent higher high school graduation rate.
Now that subjects are coming up on middle age, the findings from the 40-year follow up have moved beyond the cognitive to overall health, and Campbell herself has been shocked at the results.
"If we didn't have the actual evidence in blood serum and blood pressure, I would have fainted with shock," says Campbell. "These subjects came from the same community, similar gene pool, and it was so long ago that they received care."
Men in the treatment group, now in their mid-30s or early 40s, had less incidence of hypertension and higher levels of "good" cholesterol. Their risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and stroke were sharply lower.
Women had less risk of hypertension and lower abdominal obesity and had better lifestyle habits — they were more likely to exercise and eat well.
One of the most important things that parents can do is just talk to their babies —whether they are just cooing or smiling or playing peek-a-boo, they should be "talking a blue streak," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
A common analogy that people use is "serve and respond," he says. If the baby smiles, respond; if the baby burps, respond; if the baby gets a funny look on his face, make a face back. "That responsive parent is golden," he says. "That's how baby learns. It's how they learn that the world is safe, that they have control, can make things happen."
Campbell agrees: "Talk, talk talk," she says. "Don't ignore them." But she and Barnett would also like to see changes at the policy level.
"What needs to happen next is we need to create the capacity to do what we know matters and need to have processes in place to make sure it actually work well," says Barnett, who notes that too often programs offer one or two years of early education, but continuity is key. "Every year counts," he says.
In fact, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made universal preschool one of his first acts in office, securing $540 million for the project just last month and calling it a "redress to inequality between rich and poor." Other states like California and Texas are looking into similar programs.
"I think the need for high-quality care for children from a poverty background is grossly unmet," says Campbell. She was in close contact with the mothers of the infants in the project, who "cared deeply." One of the most important things the children received was consistency in the program, she says, which would not have happened without the help of their mothers.
"Family always matters," she says.