follow-up studies also must pay greater attention to the assessment of subsequent and continuing environmental influences on development after the intervention has been completed.
Although sometimes hard to quantify, program benefits and costs provide vital information for budget-constrained policy makers and practitioners. Nevertheless, there currently are few systematic data on the costs and benefits of intensive early childhood interventions, and almost none on the less intensive, real-world services that are more likely to be implemented on a large scale. Practitioners and policy makers need careful evaluations of a broad portfolio of intervention programs, including both modest and intensive models, as programs with the largest impacts on children are not always the most practical to implement. Although not all decisions about allocating resources for early childhood programs need be based solely on considerations of financial costs and benefits, the need for better economic data is clear.
The current agenda for early childhood policy and service delivery in the United States is embedded in four objectives:
Full access to programs whose effectiveness has been demonstrated must be ensured for all eligible children and families.
A culture of ongoing experimentation must be established to promote the design, implementation, and evaluation of alternative approaches for those circumstances in which existing interventions are found to have minimal impact.
A strong commitment to rigorous quality control must be established and sustained, in order to ensure that all available resources are used in the most effective and efficient manner.
It is essential that all early childhood policies and programs be designed and implemented within a culturally competent context and in a manner that respects the importance of individual differences among children and families.
A fundamental challenge facing the nation is to find an appropriate balance between long-term investment in human capital development and the moral responsibility to ensure that the quality of life for young children does not fall below a minimum level of decency. Stated simply, certain services are deemed worthy of support because they generate significant long-term dividends. Other programs are essential not because they result in later financial benefits but because they reflect society's commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who cannot help themselves.