Follow-up: benefits of preschool for poor children

Elementary Pupils Counting With Teacher In ClassroomThree follow-up studies of preschool education for poor children provide additional support for the lasting benefits of early education. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, begun in the mid-1960s, randomly assigned African-American children whose parents had applied to a preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to receive the program or not. Children were tested once they reached school age and periodically thereafter.

Examiners were unaware of which students had attended preschool. Since few preschools existed at the time, those who were not assigned to the program remained at home. Parents of the study’s children had completed an average of 9.4 years of school; only 20 percent had high school diplomas.

The first group of children received one year of preschool, and later groups received two years. The half-day, eight-month program consisted of a Piaget-based “children-as-active-learners” approach and included weekly home visits by the members of the staff. By the time of the follow-up evaluation at 27 years of age, 71 percent of the preschool group had earned high-school or GED diplomas, compared to 54 percent of the control group. Those who had attended preschool earned more, were more likely to own their own homes, and had longer and more stable marriages. Members of the control group were arrested twice as often, and five times as many members of the control group (35 percent) had been arrested five or more times.

The Abecedarian Project, run by the University of North Carolina since 1972, also demonstrates the significant long-term benefits of preschool. This intensive program provided full-time daycare 50 weeks a year from birth until the children entered school. Children were randomly assigned, but the control group was supplied an enriched baby formula and received social work and crisis intervention services as needed. This support reduced the differences seen between the daycare and control groups.

Daycare children more likely to remain in school

In a follow-up study at age 21, those who had received daycare from birth were more likely to have remained in school and enrolled in four-year colleges (42 percent versus 20 percent). The daycare group also demonstrated better reading skills.

A much larger study, the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program, involved parents but did not randomly assign children. Follow-up showed similar benefits from preschool: fewer retentions, higher high-school completion rates, and lower crime rates.

Previous research reveals that even broad, less controlled preschool programs provide benefits for poor children and society. High-quality programs, however, are even more effective. High-quality programs require low child/teacher ratios, highly qualified and well-paid teachers, and intellectually rich and broad curricula. Children enter these programs at or before three years of age, and their parents are engaged as active partners with the teachers. Currently many preschool programs in the United States do not meet these criteria. The three preschool programs discussed here cost substantially more money than Head Start or programs provided by most private companies. However, research shows that on a benefit/cost basis, high-quality programs are efficient. Research on the Abecedarian Project reveals a benefit/cost ratio of 4 to 1. That is, society receives four dollars in return for every dollar invested in preschool services for these poor children. Analyses of the Perry and Chicago projects showed an even higher ratio, about 7 to 1. However, these projects are expensive. The estimated cost of the Perry Project was $9,200 per child per year and the Abecedarian cost about $13,900. In comparison, Head Start costs about $7,000.

These projects targeted children living in poverty. There is little research on the cost benefits for middle- class children. If we assume that 20 percent of children under the age of five live in poverty, the cost of high-quality preschool for all poor children in the U.S. would be $53 billion per year. Governments that look at absolute costs see this cost as reasonable. Researchers Gerald Bracey and Arthur Stellar suggest that these programs are a more effective use of available funds than programs for testing all children in reading, math and science in grades three through eight.

“Long-Term Studies of Preschool: Lasting Benefits Far Outweigh Costs”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 84, Number 10, June 2003, pp. 780-783.

Published in ERN September 2003 Volume 16 Number 6

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