Investing in Preschool Programs

Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 2013, Pages 109–132

24 Pages Posted: 15 May 2013

See all articles by Greg Duncan

Greg Duncan

University of California, Irvine

Katherine Magnuson

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Date Written: May 15, 2013


We summarize the available evidence on the extent to which expenditures on early childhood education programs constitute worthy social investments in the human capital of children. We provide an overview of existing early childhood education programs, and then summarize results from a substantial body of methodologically sound evaluations of the impacts of early childhood education. The evidence supports few unqualified conclusions. Many early childhood education programs appear to boost cognitive ability and early school achievement in the short run. However, most of them show smaller impacts than those generated by the best-known programs, and their cognitive impacts largely disappear within a few years. Despite this fade-out, long-­run follow-ups from a handful of well-­known programs show lasting positive effects on such outcomes as greater educational attainment, higher earnings, and lower rates of crime. It is uncertain what skills, behaviors, or developmental processes are particularly important in producing these longer-­run impacts. Our review also describes different models of human development used by social scientists, examines heterogeneous results across groups, and tries to identify the ingredients of early childhood education programs that are most likely to improve the performance of these programs.

JEL Classification: I21, I28, J24

Suggested Citation

Duncan, Greg and Magnuson, Katherine, Investing in Preschool Programs (May 15, 2013). Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 2013, Pages 109–132, Available at SSRN:

Greg Duncan (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine ( email )

Campus Drive
Irvine, CA California 62697-3125
United States

Katherine Magnuson

University of Wisconsin - Madison ( email )

716 Langdon Street
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States

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