The Abecedarian Project

The Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education  (ABC/CARE) were innovative programs that provided enriched care in the early years for disadvantaged, predominately African-American children in and around Chapel Hill, North Carolina beginning in 1972.

These high-quality, educationally-focused child care centers went well beyond providing ordinary care. They supported language, motor, and cognitive development as well as socio-emotional competencies considered crucial for school success, with the goal enhancing the life skills of disadvantaged children. Curriculum aimed to foster skills such as task orientation, the ability to communicate, independence, and pro-social behavior. All children in the treatment group received medical check-ups, and parents were notified if children had medical issues.

ABC and CARE have been studied extensively. In 2005, CEHD director James J. Heckman collaborated with ABC/CARE to synthesize the findings of that research. This has produced a number of influential papers detailing the benefits, costs, and long-term impact of these programs.

Study Design

ABC and CARE were both designed with two phases.In the first and main phase lasting from from birth until age 5, children were randomly assigned to treatment. The second phase of the study took place in the first three years of public schooling and supported children’s academic development.

The programs enhanced parental involvement in the education of the children. A home visit took place every two weeks and provided parents home activities to complement the skills taught at school. The visitor facilitated communication between the teachers and the parents. Children were assigned to this treatment through a second-stage randomization. The first phase of CARE, from birth until age 5, had an additional treatment arm of home visits designed to improve home environments.

Cognitive, Education, Employment, Health, and Behavioral Benefits Found

Evaluations of ABC/CARE indicate large short-term and moderate long-term impacts on IQ and academic skills.

  • The programs had impacts on cognitive skills at the end of the treatment, and the impacts persisted at all ages through 21 years, with improved reading achievement and math skills at ages 8, 12, 15, and 21.
  • ABC/CARE had substantial, long-term impacts on adult social and economic outcomes. At age 30, the ABC treatment group had more years of education and were more likely to have a college degree, and be employed full-time during the previous two years.
  • Impacts on health were only measured at age 34, when bio measures were collected on a subset of the sample (n = 72)t. Using exact (small-sample) block permutation tests and step-down tests to adjust for the effects on p-values of multiple hypotheses testing, researchers found lower blood pressure in males and reduced pre-hypertension for females in the treatment cohort.
  • There were also impacts on outcomes between 15 and 30 years of age on measures of adjustment and risk-taking. Treated individuals were less likely to report carrying a weapon, using illegal drugs, underage smoking, teen parenthood, or teen depression.
  • There are statistically significant treatment differences on potential sources of treatment effects, including boosts in 5-year parental attitudes, 5-year cognitive skills, reductions in 5-year behavior problems, and improvements in 12-year self-concepts and locus of control in ABC.

Related Papers

Heckman, J. J., R. Pinto, and P. A. Savelyev (2013, October). “Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.American Economic Review 103 (6), 2052-2086.

Campbell, F. A., G. Conti, J. J. Heckman, S. H. Moon, R. Pinto, E. P. Pungello, and Y. Pan. (2014). “Early childhood investments substantially boost adult health.Science 343 (6178), 1478-1485.

Elango, S., , J. L. Garcia, J. J. Heckman, and A. Hojman (2016). “Early childhood education.” In R. A. Moffitt (Ed.), Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, Volume 2, Chapter 4, pp. 235-297. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Conti, G., J. J. Heckman, and R. Pinto. (2016). “The Effects of Two Influential Early Childhood Interventions on Health and Healthy Behaviors.Economic Journal, 126 (Feature Issue): F28—F65.

Garcia, J. L. and J. J. Heckman. (2017). “Targeting Programmes Effectively.Nature Human Behavior, 1(1): Article 19.

Garcia, J. L., J. J. Heckman, and A. L. Ziff (2018). “Gender differences in the effects of early childhood education,” European Economics Review, 109( October): 9–22.

Garcia, J. L., J. J. Heckman and A. Ziff. (2019). “Early Childhood Education and Crime.Infant Mental Health Journal, 40(1): 141-151.

Garcia, J. L. and J. J. Heckman. (2020). "Early Childhood Education and Life-cycle Health." Health Economics.

Garcia, J. L., D. Ermini Leaf, J. J. Heckman, and M. J. Prados. (2020). “Quantifying the Life-cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.Journal of Political Economy, 128(7): 2502-2541.