Which early childhood programs produce the best results?

Why is this question important? Effective educational interventions for children can positively impact students' future academic success (Barnett, Frede, Mosbasher, & Mohr, 1987; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001). The indicators of positive effects for early education include fewer arrests, fewer teen pregnancies, and higher employment (Gilliam & Zigler, 2000). Studies also found that investments for preschool can save between $4 and $8 in later costs to society (Barnett, 2007; Karoly & Bigelow, 2005). Despite these findings, important questions remain to be answered. Which programs and practices produce the best outcomes, and what is the long-term impact of early education academic instruction?

See further discussion below.


Result(s): Of the programs evaluated in the Chambers, et al., 2010 analysis, six showed strong evidence of effectiveness, and five demonstrated moderate evidence of effectiveness. When results were averaged across all programs, all outcomes had small effects at the end of preschool: language effect size (ES) = 0.11; literacy ES = 0.15; phonological awareness ES = 0.15; mathematics ES = 0.17; and cognition ES = 0.13. While many questions remain to be answered regarding early intervention of preschool children, the increasing number and quality of studies on this topic are now available for review. The results of this systematic review now offer decision makers options when selecting programs for greater likelihood of producing desirable results.

(See rating descriptions under "Study Description.")

Strong Evidence of Effectiveness: Six programs produced strong evidence of effectiveness, with a minimum effect size of 0.20 in at least two studies, at least one of which was randomized by standards developed for the study.

  • Curiosity Corner: A program aimed at developing the attitudes, skills, and knowledge for later school success, with an emphasis on language and literacy skills.
  • Direct Instruction: A teacher-directed program in which specific cognitive and literacy skills are broken down into small units and taught using explicit instruction practices.
  • ELLM (Early Literacy and Learning Model): A literacy-focused curriculum and support system designed for young children from low-income families. The ELLM program includes curriculum and literacy building blocks, assessment for instructional improvement, professional development for literacy coaches and teachers, family involvement, and opportunities for collaborative partnerships.
  • Interactive Book Reading: A program adapted from the Dialogic Reading program for use in a whole class setting. Language and literacy proficiency is built by providing opportunities for children to use vocabulary from books, answering open-ended questions, and encouraging children to talk about the lessons.
  • Let's Begin With the Letter People: An early language and literacy program emphasizing learning through play. The program combines in-school training with a home/parent component.  
  • Ready Set Leap!: A curriculum combining literacy-focused instruction with multisensory activities. The curriculum is structured around units for large and small group instruction. Experiential learning, social and emotional development, teacher-child relationships, and home-school connections instruction are stressed. The curriculum includes language, early literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, fine arts, health and safety, personal and social development, physical development, and technology. The program provides assessment tools for evaluating a child's progress.

Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness: Five programs were subjects of a randomized study or two matched studies, with a minimum effect size of 0.20.

  • Breakthrough to Literacy: A systematic and integrated literacy and language program. Systematic explicit instruction is core to the methodology of the program. Interactive computer programs are incorporated into the design to engage students in individualized activities.
  • Bright Beginnings: A curriculum with a child-centered approach offering literacy-focused experiences for preschool-aged children. The program includes nine units: language and literacy, mathematics, social and personal development, healthful living, scientific thinking, social studies, creative arts, physical development, and technology. The curriculum also includes parent involvement.
  • DLM Express Plus Open Court : A program emphasizing literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, fine arts, health and safety, personal and social development, physical movement, and technology. When combined with the Open Court Reading Pre-K, the program builds a foundation in oral language, print awareness, instruction in phonics, early decoding, and comprehension skills.
  • Pre-K Mathematics Plus DLM: A mathematics curriculum supplemented with the DLM Early Childhood Express Math program. The curriculum consists of small-group mathematics activities with manipulatives for use in preschool classrooms. Software for training in numerical, quantitative, geometric, and spatial activities is included. The program also encompasses activities and materials for use by parents in the home.
  • Project Approach: A set of teaching strategies based on a constructivist approach to guide children through investigations of real-world topics. The curriculum is designed to motivate each child by identifying the child's interests as the starting point for lessons. The three core curriculum components are spontaneous play, systematic instruction, and project work.

Limited Evidence of Effectiveness; Strong Evidence of Modest Effects: Three programs qualified for moderate evidence of effectiveness with effect sizes between 0.10 and 0.19 on one or more outcome clusters.

  • Literacy Express: A program designed to promote emergent literacy skills. The curriculum is structured around units sequenced in order of complexity. Each unit includes children's books that address theme-relevant vocabulary for small and large group reading activities. Homogeneous small group activities are conducted for children to practice oral language, phonological sensitivity, and print awareness.
  • Doors to Discovery: A program based on building literacy skills: oral language, phonological awareness, print concepts, alphabet knowledge, writing, and comprehension.
  • Language-Focused Curriculum: A program designed for 3- to 5-year-old children with language limitations, including children with language impairment, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and English language learners. The curriculum focuses on play-to-teach linguistic concepts. There are both teacher-led and child-led activities with explicit attention to oral language development.

Limited Evidence of Effectiveness; Weak Evidence of Notable Effects: Three programs had an effect size of at least 0.20, but did not qualify for Limited Evidence of Effectiveness: Strong Evidence of Modest Effects due to the small numbers of students included in the studies and small sample size.

  • EMERGE (Exemplary Model of Early Reading Growth and Excellence): A program to help children from low-income families acquire early literacy skills. The program includes the use of research-based teaching practices, progress monitoring, provision of a literacy-rich learning environment, and continuous professional development. The program also includes family involvement and home-based activity components.
  • PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies): A program addressing social-emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skill domains. The curriculum emphasizes awareness of ones emotions and teaches children to self-regulate their behavior.
  • Sound Foundations: A phonemic awareness program with a focus on recognition of phoneme identity across words with special attention paid to nine key phonemes. Note: This program has been discontinued.

Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness: Studies in this category did not meet the criteria for inclusion with programs with Limited Evidence of Effectiveness; Weak Evidence of Notable Effects. (Program descriptions are available in the Chambers, et al., 2010 study)

  • BELL
  • Creative Curriculum
  • Dialogic Reading
  • Ladders to Literacy
  • Montessori
  • Project Construct
  • REDI
  • Tools of the Mind

No Qualifying Studies: These programs had no qualifying studies. (Program descriptions are available in the Chambers, et al., 2010 study.)

  • Abecedarian
  • Building Blocks
  • Early Authors Program
  • High/Scope
  • Reggio Emilia
  • Scholastic Preschool Program

Implication(s):Not surprisingly, the Chambers , et al., 2010 analysis of preschool academic instruction found that programs focusing on mathematics instruction improved mathematics achievement, and those emphasizing literacy and phonological awareness improved achievement in those skills in young children. It is possible that these results may indicate that teaching preschool children skills ordinarily taught in kindergarten or later merely produce meaningful results earlier. However, several programs showed effects continuing into kindergarten and the early elementary grades. This suggests that early intervention may have longer lasting impacts beyond simply an early exposure to academic training. More research needs to be conducted to determine how powerful and how lasting these impacts are for student success.

Study Description:Similar to a meta-analysis, the Chamber et al., 2010 study is a best evidence synthesis that Slavin developed to evaluate research in which there are few qualifying studies for each program included in the analysis.
The review included randomized or matched control groups with a study duration of at least 12 weeks. Because of the difficulty of finding programs with objective data for interventions on children's social and emotional development, the outcomes summarized in this report only assess the impact of programs on academic and cognitive outcomes. Studies included valid measures of language, literacy, phonological awareness, mathematical, and/or cognitive outcomes that were independent of the experimental treatments. A total of 38 studies evaluating 27 different programs met these criteria for outcomes assessed at the end of preschool and/or kindergarten.
The review attempted to make the findings for each program user-friendly by ranking them on an easy-to-follow rating scale. The categories of effectiveness are as follows:

Strong Evidence of Effectiveness: Programs in this category were evaluated in at least two studies, one of which was a large randomized or randomized quasi-experimental study, or multiple smaller studies, with a sample size–weighted effect size of at least 0.20, and a sample size across all studies of 250 students or 20 classes. The effects included academic or cognitive outcomes assessed at the end of preschool and/or kindergarten.
Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness: Programs in this category were evaluated in at least one randomized or two matched studies of any qualifying design, with a sample size of 125 students or 10 classes, and a weighted mean effect size of at least 0.20 across all measures in a particular domain.
Limited Evidence of Effectiveness; Strong Evidence of Modest Effects: Programs in this category were subjects of studies that met the criteria for moderate evidence of effectiveness except that the weighted mean effect size was 0.10 to 0.19 across all measures in a particular domain.
Limited Evidence of Effectiveness; Weak Evidence with Notable Effects: Programs in this category were assessed in studies that had a weighted mean effect size of at least 0.20, but did not qualify for moderate evidence of effectiveness due to insufficient numbers of studies or small sample sizes.
Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness: Qualifying studies did not meet the criteria for limited evidence of effectiveness.
No Qualifying Studies: Programs in this category did not have any qualifying studies.


Barnett, W. S. (2007). Benefits and costs of quality early childhood education. Children's Legal Rights Journal, 27(1), 7­–23.

Barnett, W. S., Frede, E. C., Mosbasher, H., & Mohr, P. (1987). The efficacy of public preschool programs and the relationship of program quality to efficacy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10(1), 37–49.

* Chambers, B., Cheung, A., Slavin, R. E., Smith, D., & Laurenzano, M. (2010). Effective early childhood education programs: A systematic review. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED527643.pdf.

Gilliam, W. S., & Zigler, E. F. (2000). A critical meta-analysis of all impact evaluations of state funded preschool from 1977 to 1998: Implications for policy, service delivery and program evaluations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15, 441–473.

Karoly, L. A., & Bigelow, J. H. (2005). The economics of investing in universal preschool education in California. Rand Corporation.

Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Robertson, D. L., & Mann, E. A. (2001). Long-term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest: A 15-year follow-up of low-income children in public schools. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(18), 2339–2346.

Slavin, R. E. (2008). What works? Issues in synthesizing education program evaluations. Educational Researcher, 37(1), 5–14.

* Study from which graph data were derived.