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Policy Proposals

Success by ten: Intervening early, often, and effectively in the education of young children

February 1, 2007

The Problem

Early childhood education differs greatly across socioeconomic groups in America, with too many young children missing out on critical years of learning and setting the stage for differences that persist into adulthood. These students not only experience limited levels of academic attainment, but also interact more frequently with the social welfare system in adulthood.

The Proposal

The proposed Success by Ten program would intervene early by targeting disadvantaged students up to age five through intensive year-round education with low child–staff ratios. A secondary intervention to assist elementary age children would prevent fade out. The benefits of the program are estimated to be twice the program’s cost, with gains reaped through increased earnings by participants and their families, improved health outcomes, reduced special education placements, reduced criminal activity, and predicted boosts to GDP.


Success by Ten is a proposed program designed to help every child achieve success in school by age ten. It calls for a major expansion and intensification of Head Start and Early Head Start, so that every disadvantaged child has the opportunity to enroll in a high-quality program of education and care during the first five years of his or her life. Because the benefits of this intensive intervention may be squandered if disadvantaged children go from this program to a low-quality elementary school, the second part of the proposal requires that schools devote their Title I spending to instructional programs that have proven effective in further improving the skills of children, especially their ability to read.

The proposal is based on the principle that early intervention is particularly important because of the brain's unusual “plasticity” during a child's early years. Children from different family backgrounds currently experience very different types of learning environments during the early years. The result is that large disparities in cognitive and noncognitive skills are found along race and class lines well before children start school, even before they can enroll in the federal Head Start preschool program at age three or four years. Most of America's social policies try to play catch-up against these early disadvantages — and most disadvantaged children never catch up.

Findings from a number of rigorously conducted studies of early childhood and elementary school programs suggest that intervening early, often, and effectively in the lives of disadvantaged children from birth to age ten may substantially improve their life chances for higher educational attainment and greater success in the labor market, thereby helping impoverished children avoid poverty in adulthood. Another consequence would be to greatly improve the skills of tomorrow's workforce, thereby enhancing future economic performance. These benefits for children would be accompanied by benefits for their parents, many of whom work full time and need high-quality child care, such as the program would provide.