In 2017, Greg Duncan, the education economist, along with psychologist Drew Bailey and colleagues, reviewed sixty-seven early childhood education programs meant to boost academic achievement. Programs like Head Start did give a head start, but academically that was about it. The researchers found a pervasive “fadeout” effect, where a temporary academic advantage quickly diminished and often completely vanished. On a graph, it looks eerily like the kind that show future elite athletes catching up to their peers who got a head start in deliberate practice.
A reason for this, the researchers concluded, is that early childhood education programs teach “closed” skills that can be acquired quickly with repetition of procedures, but that everyone will pick up at some point anyway. The fadeout was not a disappearance of skill so much as the rest of the world catching up. The motor-skill equivalent would be teaching a kid to walk a little early. Everyone is going to learn it anyway, and while it might be temporarily impressive, there is no evidence that rushing it matters.
The research team recommended that if programs want to impart lasting academic benefits they should focus instead on “open” skills that scaffold later knowledge. Teaching kids to read a little early is not a lasting advantage. Teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand what they read can be. As with all desirable difficulties, the trouble is that a head start comes fast, but deep learning is slow. “The slowest growth,” the researchers wrote, occurs “for the most complex skills.”