political challenges presently facing children, their parents and other caregivers, and U.S. society in general. These include: (1) dramatic changes in the nature of work, an increasingly strong link between education and employability, and greater difficulty for families at all income levels in balancing workplace and family responsibilities; (2) ongoing increases in the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population and the persistence of significant racial and ethnic disparities in health and developmental outcomes; (3) the persistent poverty of young children and a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor; (4) continued high rates of community and family violence, as well as serious mental health problems that impose significant burdens on family functioning; (5) an increased reliance on market solutions to address complex social problems; (6) the devolution of some important responsibilities for the implementation of child and family policy to the state and local levels; and (7) conflicting views about the role of government and the balance between public and personal responsibility for the health and well-being of children.
The release of this report also comes at a somewhat sensitive time in the politics of early childhood intervention in the United States. Evaluations of a wide range of model programs and community-based replications have produced results both encouraging and disappointing, posing a critical challenge to those who are seeking to understand the conditions under which success is more likely than failure. This is also a time of significant expansion in state and local initiatives designed to improve the life chances of very young children. Fueled by headlines about the importance of the early years, as well as by increased national interest in school readiness, education reform, and the early roots of antisocial behavior and violent crime, this heightened public concern raises critical questions about which investments are most likely to make a significant difference for the most vulnerable young children. In this context, the most important task facing the committee is not to differentiate specific intervention programs that “work” from those that do not. Rather, it is to provide a scientifically grounded portrait of the most important achievements of early childhood and the environmental conditions that either promote or impede their accomplishment, and to point to directions for both action and further research toward those ends.
This report addresses two complementary agendas. The first is focused on the future and asks: How can society use knowledge about early childhood development to maximize the development of the nation' s human capital and ensure the ongoing vitality of its democratic institutions? The second is focused on the present and asks: How can the nation use knowledge to nurture, protect, and ensure the health and well-being of all young children as an important objective in its own right, regardless of whether measurable returns can be documented in the future? The first agenda