1972 was a big year. Pong became the first successful video game, HBO brought Paul Newman into our living rooms, smoking was allowed on airplanes, and everyone started saying “Yo Mama” without the direct reference to someone’s actual mother.
What a time to be alive.
But 1972 was a milestone year for early childhood education (ECE) as well. While toddlers were fast asleep in their flame-resistant sesame street onesies, a team of researchers at The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, was on to something big.
The discoveries they made in their experiment this year would come to be one of the most groundbreaking and influential studies in the entire history of ECE
For some, the civil rights movement can feel like a distant past in our nation’s history. Truth is, it’s only been 57 years since the town of Chapel Hill in North Carolina had segregated schools. In fact, it wasn’t until 1966 that the community’s public high school finally opened its doors to Black students.
At the time, many citizens within the town met the integration with resistance. Unsurprisingly, the lack of unanimous support caused some serious problems for the newly-enrolled students. Despite making up 46% of the attendees, Black students struggled academically.
As time went on, the education system continued to see a strong racial and economic divide when it came to school performance. Upper class students were consistently outperforming low-income peers, which were predominantly the same Black families from years prior.
Throughout the segregation era, it was commonly believed that intelligence was fixed. You were either born with the genes to be smart, or you weren’t. In the 1960s, though, we started to see a few small breakthroughs, such as the Perry Project, that hinted otherwise.
That’s where the Abecedarian Project entered the scene.
In 1971, Craig Ramey, a civil rights activist with a newly-acquired PhD, took a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Ramey and his wife Sharon Landesman Ramey founded the initial experiment. Ramey’s theory was that, under the right circumstances, early childhood education could help reverse the academic struggles Chapel Hill was still facing with children from low-income communities.
The team of researchers began the experiment with the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, where Ramey and his team partnered with Joseph Sparling, the center’s senior investigator and associate director. They named the experiment the Abecedarian Project, “Abecedarian” being a Latinate word for an alphabetical sequence.
The Rameys, Sparling, and the rest of the team went out into the community and hand-selected 111 expectant mothers who would be willing to enroll their newborns in the experiment once they had given birth.
From there, 54 of the children selected were added to the control group. Their parents were sent home with compensation consisting of diapers and 15 months of infant formula. The remaining 57 children were those that would go on to receive the Abecedarian curriculum.
Some of the qualifications for selecting the 111 families included:
Joseph Sparling, with help from Isabelle Lewis, borrowed initial curricular ideas from Freidrich Fröbel, a German educator credited for inventing kindergarten in the 19th century. Sparling and Lewis then worked with researchers to modernize the curriculum, designing their small group activities as playful back-and-forth exchanges between the adults and children.
The curriculum consisted of four main elements:
The main goal of the curriculum was to encourage growth in social, emotional, cognitive, and physical areas of development, with a primary emphasis on language. Trained teachers and childcare professionals were instructed to teach, play, cuddle, diaper and feed the children starting from day one, all the way through the experiment.
The most important instruction given to teachers: Keep talking to the children.
Students were subjected to this curriculum five days per week, for 10 hours each day. The entirety of the experiment was conducted over five years, with classes only having two weeks off per year, making it one of the longest-running studies ever recorded on the benefits of early childhood education for children from low-income households.
Unsurprisingly, the immediate results of the Abecedarian Project were overwhelmingly positive.
Researchers initially found that enrolled students:
However, those weren’t the only important outcomes. Findings that often take a backseat to the results of this experiment are the impacts researchers witnessed in the children’s mothers.
In fact, access to early childhood education had such a significant impact on the moms, the researchers had to edit the study to include these results when calculating cost-benefit ratios for the project.
By the time their children were 4.5 years of age, mothers of enrolled children:
The overall ROI of the program saved taxpayers an impressive $2.50 for every $1 spent. Results of higher incomes, less need for educational and government services, and reduced healthcare costs were among the major contributing factors to the cost benefits.
Frances Campbell, a principal investigator, took over the follow-up studies to continue to track the children as they aged into adults. Post-project follow-up visits were conducted at the ages of 5, 8, 12, 15, 21, and 30.
For children enrolled in the Abecedarian Project, they were:
Believe it or not, the Abecedarian Project is still being conducted!
In 2014, The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute opened a collaboration with scientists from University College London and the University of Chicago.
During these collaborations, Nobel Prize winner James J. Heckman analyzed data from the project and found actual biomarkers of physiological benefits associated with ECE enrollment, marking the first time findings of this nature have ever been recorded.
Health benefits consisted of:
It’s difficult to say which parts of the experiment impacted which outcomes. These health benefits may have come from easier access to pediatric care, healthier eating habits, or even living in a family with the financial means to make more health-conscious decisions.
While there’s no clear correlation, most of these factors are elements that ECE teachers and staff can have an active influence over.
There’s no denying the historical impact of the Abecedarian Project on childcare policy and the ECE community as a whole.
However, a lot has changed since 1972. A recent paper authored by Iheoma Iruka and Elizabeth Pungello Bruno (a former investigator on the Abecedarian Project) aims to take the discussion around childcare policy a step further by pointing out the project’s blind spots when it comes to race.
By taking a “color-blind” approach to the study, it “erases not just the bad stuff but also the good stuff about being from particular groups. It erases your language, it erases your family, it erases your community, it erases your resilience,” says Iruka.
To take one example, teachers and children enrolled in the Abecedarian Project were assumed to speak in General American English (GAE) rather than African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Yet research has shown that AAVE speakers are more likely to succeed in school when educators are trained to understand language varieties.
It’s also worth noting that while the Abecedarian project included Black researchers and teachers, all principal investigators were white.
While none of this negates the study’s impact, it does bring awareness to the ongoing need for more diverse approaches to early childhood research.
Want to understand more about the Abecedarian Project’s limitations? The paper ‘Reexamining the Carolina Abecedarian Project using an antiracist perspective: Implications for early care and education research’ can be purchased here.
The findings for this study are still rolling in as participants continue to age and be re-interviewed.
But the benefits of the Abecedarian Project are already quite significant, and there are many important takeaways that can be applied to your own schools and centers.
Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Most notably, centers should understand that segregation within school districts is still an active problem, and it’s worsening.
In fact, studies show that the average Black student has less exposure to white students in public schools now than they did in 1971.
The exposure rate has dropped from 32% in 1971 to just 29% in 2010. More recent studies show that in New York state, 64% of Black students attended schools where 0-10% of enrolled students were white. Decades of research tells us these students are going to see bigger hurdles with academic success.
If the Abecedarian Project proved just one thing, it’s that early childhood education is beneficial to every student and family.
For a better future for all, centers can focus on lending an extra hand to students that come from low-income households, while holding space to include the unique experiences of racially-diverse families. Centers can start by encouraging diversity within their own programs, as well as continuing to advocate for better, more affordable access to childcare.