The Carolina Abecedarian Project was a controlled experiment that was conducted in 1972 in North Carolina, United States, by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute to study the potential benefits of early childhood education for poor children to enhance school readiness. It has been found that in their earliest school years, poor children lag behind others, suggesting the fact that they were ill-prepared for schooling.  The Abecedarian project was inspired by the fact that few other early childhood programs could provide a sufficiently well-controlled environment to determine the effectiveness of early childhood training.
The participants in this experiment were 111 infants born between 1972 and 1977. Of these, 57 were given high-quality intervention, consisting in part of educational games based on the latest in educational theory. The other 54 acted as a control group. An overwhelming majority (98 percent) of the children who participated in the experiment were African-American. The average starting age of participants was 4.4 months. Whereas other childhood programs started at age two, the Abecedarian Project started from infancy and continued for five years, a period longer than most other programs. The participants received child care for 6–8 hours a day, five days a week. Educational activities were game-based and emphasized language. The control group was provided with nutritional supplements, social services, and health care to ensure that these factors did not affect the outcomes of the experiment. All the 111 infants were identified as "high risk" based on maternal education (which was on average 10th grade), family income, and other factors. The teacher-child ratio was low. It ranged from 1:3 for infants to 1:6 at age 5.
Follow-up assessment of the participants involved in the project has been ongoing. So far, outcomes have been measured at ages 3, 4, 5, 6.5, 8, 12, 15, 21, and 30. The areas covered were cognitive functioning, academic skills, educational attainment, employment, parenthood, and social adjustment. The significant findings of the experiment were as follows:
Impact of child care/preschool on reading and math achievement, and cognitive ability, at age 21:
- An increase of 1.8 grade levels in reading achievement
- An increase of 1.3 grade levels in math achievement
- A modest increase in Full-Scale IQ (4.4 points), and in Verbal IQ (4.2 points).
Impact of child care/preschool on life outcomes at age 21:
- Completion of a half-year more of education
- Much higher percentage enrolled in school at age 21 (42 percent vs. 20 percent)
- Much higher percentage attended, or still attending, a 4-year college (36 percent vs. 14 percent)
- Much higher percentage engaged in skilled jobs (47 percent vs. 27 percent)
- Much lower percentage of teen-aged parents (26 percent vs. 45 percent)
- Reduction of criminal activity
Statistically significant outcomes at age 30:
- Four times more likely to have graduated from a four-year college (23 percent vs. 6 percent)
- More likely to have been employed consistently over the previous two years (74 percent vs. 53 percent)
- Five times less likely to have used public assistance in the previous seven years (4 percent vs. 20 percent)
- Delayed becoming parents by average of almost two years
(Most recent information from Developmental Psychology, January 18, 2012, cited in uncnews.unc.edu, January 19, 2012)
The project concluded that high quality, educational child care from early infancy was therefore of utmost importance.
Other, less intensive programs, notably the Head Start Program, but also others, have not been as successful. It may be that they provided too little too late compared with the Abecedarian program.
The total per-child cost of the project was ~$67,225, or ~$13,900 for each of the five years (2002 dollars); Masse & Barnett 2002 estimated that the total annual cost of a comparable program for all poor children in 2002 would have been ~$53 billion.
Some researchers have advised caution about the reported positive results of the project. Among other things, they have pointed out analytical discrepancies in published reports, including unexplained changes in sample sizes between different assessments and publications. Herman Spitz has noted that a mean cognitive ability difference of similar magnitude to the final difference between the intervention and control groups was apparent in cognitive tests already at age six months, indicating that "4 1/2 years of massive intervention ended with virtually no effect." Spitz has suggested that the IQ difference between the intervention and control groups may have been latently present from the outset due to faulty randomization. In fact, it is known that randomization was compromised in the Abecedarian program, with seven families assigned to the experimental group and one family assigned to the control group dropping out of the program after learning about their random assignment.
- The Carolina Abecedarian Project, 2008-07-24
- Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy: Social Programs that Works
- Early Learning, Later Success: The abecedarian study
Campbell, Frances A., Craig T. Ramey, Elizabeth Pungello, Joseph Sparling, and Shari Miller-Johnson. “Early Childhood Education: Young Adult Outcomes From the Abecedarian Project,” Applied Developmental Science, 2002, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 42-57.
Leonard N. Masse and W. Steven Barnett, A Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention, New Brunswick, N.J.: National Institute for Early Education Research, 2002. http://nieer.org/resources/research/AbecedarianStudy.pdf
Campbell, Frances A., Elizabeth Pungello, Shari Miller-Johnson, Margaret Burchinal, and Craig T. Ramey. “The Development of Cognitive and Academic Abilities: Growth Curves From an Early Childhood Educational Experiment,” Developmental Psychology, 2001, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 231-242.
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- Child Trends: Guide to Effective Programs for Children and Youth, Child Trends 2003
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- IQ Testing 101, Alan S. Kaufman, 2009, Springer Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8261-0629-3 ISBN 9780826106292
- Campbell, Pungello, Miller-Johnson, Burchinal, & Ramey, 2001
- The Carolina Abecedarian Project, 2006-10-24
- evidencebasedprograms.org - Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy: Social Programs that work: Abecedarian Project, 2010
- Baumeister, A.A., & Bacharach, V.R. (2000). Early Generic Educational Intervention Has No Enduring Effect On Intelligence and Does Not Prevent Mental Retardation: The Infant Health and Development Program. Intelligence, 28, 161–192.
- Campbell F.A., & Ramey C.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.
- fpg.unc.edu - The Carolina Abecedarian Project, 2008-07-24
- fpg.unc.edu - The Carolina Abecedarian Project, 2008-05-28
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