By Madeline Ostrander

An Abecedarian teacher guides a student through a task.

There was a sense of idealism in the air in 1971 when Craig Ramey, a psychologist in his late 20s with a newly minted Ph.D., took a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to launch what would become one of the longest-running educational experiments in history. He became a lead researcher at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, named for a former U.S. Senator, university president, and famous advocate for civil rights and the working poor. He and Joseph Sparling, the center’s senior investigator and associate director and a former school principal, wanted to study a sample of Chapel Hill children and test whether it was possible to change the course of a life by stepping in early, from infancy. They named their experiment the Abecedarian Project, from an obscure Latinate word for an alphabetical sequence.

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