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Major Study Finds Preschool 'Pays Off' for the Disadvantaged

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Disadvantaged children who participate in high-quality preschool programs significantly outperform those who have not participated in such programs, according to the final results of the first major longitudinal study to measure the effects of preschool education on the lives of students.

"On a wide range of measures of school and life success, the study shows that by age 19, the latest age for which complete evidence is available, young people who had attended a quality preschool program on' average significantly outperformed youngsters who had not," according to a report on the study released last week.

"Preschool pays off for its participants and society because it reduces costs for special education, welfare, and the criminal-justice system," added the report, which is titled Changed Lives: The Effects of the Perry Preschool Program on Youths Through Age 19.

David P. Weikart, president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Mich., which conducted the 22-year-long Perry Preschool Project, said the results strongly support the expansion of preschool programs.

"The evidence is so clear and conclusive and the economic [benefits] are so clearcut," he continued. "The real audience [for the study] is not the federal government, but the state. The economic savings are at the state level and the real expansion is going to be at the state level."

Analyzed 123 Students

The $3.5-million study, which began in 1962, followed the lives of 123 black youths from families of low socioeconomic status. Half of the families in the study received welfare assistance, 47 percent were single-parent families, and fewer than one-quarter of the mothers and 11 percent of the fathers had graduated from high school.

Children in the study were randomly assigned either to a control group that did not attend preschool or to an experimental group that attended a high-quality preschool program for two-and-a-half hours five mornings a week, either for one year at age 4 or for two years beginning at age 3.

The preschool program emphasized active learning, problem-solving, and a high level of interaction between adults and children and among children. In addition, according to the report, teachers visited each mother and child at home for 90 minutes a week.

The study was supported, in part, by grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. Additional funds were provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Spencer Foundation, the Levi-Strauss Foundation, and the Rosenberg Foundation of San Francisco. Additional support came from the state of Michigan and the Ypsilanti Public Schools.

Children More Successful

The study, the first of its kind to suggest the economic impact of preschool programs on the larger community, found that those children who participated in the preschool program were more successful in high school, more likely to attend college and job-training classes, and more likely to be employed and self-supporting than the children who did not attend the preschool program.

The study also found that the preschool children subsequently had lower rates of juvenile crime, welfare dependence, and teen-age pregnancy, according to the report. A second phase of the study is scheduled to measure the effects of preschool on the young adults as they enter their mid-20's.

"A cost-benefit analysis of the program and its results indicated that investment in the preschool program was a good investment for society," the report maintains. "The return on the initial investment was equal to three-and-a-half times the cost of two years of preschool and seven times the cost of one year of preschool." These findings were calculated based on an analysis of the costs of the program and its effect on students' earning abilities and the degree to which they used social services.

The report concluded: "The economic benefits obtained by the end of high school were sufficient to justify public investment in one year of preschool education for disadvantaged children."

Preschool programs make a "significant" difference in the lives of disadvantaged students, according to the report, because of a "chain of cause and effect." Because the preschool program improved students' intellectual and social competence as they started school, the report maintains, the students began 1st grade at an advantage and required less special education and remedial education later in their school careers.

In addition, because the students demonstrated higher scholastic achievement, they were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to engage in crime, and more likely to be employed in early adulthood, the report found.

According to Mr. Weikart, the research findings should "add to the growing public interest in early-childhood education as a good way to invest in the futures of children."

"Taxpayers already spend a great deal of money trying to remedy these problems after they occur," Mr. Weikart said. "Preschool can partially prevent these problems from occurring, at a fraction of the cost of remediation."

'Positive Results'

Dodie Truman Livingston, commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the Perry Preschool study reinforces the agency's support for preschool programs.

"I think the report demonstrates the value of preschool education to all children, especially those who are economically disadvantaged," Ms. Livingston said. "It also demonstrates that if administered properly, a well-structured and well-designed curriculum is economically advantageous and can yield such positive results for the future development of children as a low dropout rate in school and less likelihood of erroneous placement."

"We are already committed to the Head Start program," she continued, "and we already recognize the dollar values of the program to children and their families. This just strengthens our [support]."

Replication of Study

But Edward F. Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Early Childhood Development and Social Policy at Yale University, cautioned against using the study's findings to formulate policy changes.

"I think that you're talking about potentially changing social policy and [making] massive changes in how we educate children," he said. "You do not do that until you have a very solid base. ... One would like to see a replication before one starts cheering."

Mr. Zigler praised the Perry Preschool study as a first step toward changing policy, but said he was concerned that it may be accepted unconditionally. "People are going to be looking at this book very, very closely. It will be 'must' reading for those who have championed [and those who have] questioned the long-term effects of preschool education."

Mr. Weikart acknowledged that the project is "a highly specialized type of study" but he added that "in terms of logical relations with other work in the field, it stands pretty much shoulder to shoulder with it." He cited confirming data developed within the Ypsilanti study, a group of seven similar studies conducted by other researchers, and Head Start, which "in the broad sense has replicated this finding by finding a gradual improvement across the board in many general programs."

Study's Findings

Specific findings of the Ypsilanti research group, which released preliminary data from the study last year (see Education Week, Sept. 7, 1983), included these:

Sixty-seven percent of the young people in the preschool group graduated from high school, while only 49 of the non-preschool group did; 38 percent of the preschool group enrolled in postsecondary education, compared with only 21 percent of the non-preschool group.

At age 19, 50 percent of the students in the preschool group were employed, compared with 32 percent of the students in the non-preschool group.

Sixty-one percent of the preschool group received average or above average scores on tests of functional competence, compared with 38 percent of the non-preschool group.

The rate of detentions and arrests for students in the preschool group was 31 percent, compared with 51 percent for the non-preschool group.

The rate of teen-age pregnancies for women in the preschool group was 64 per 100 women, while the rate for women in the non-preschool group was 117 per 100 women.

Nineteen percent of the preschool group reported they were currently receiving welfare assistance, compared with 32 percent of the non-preschool group.

Copies of the report are available for $15 from High/Scope Press, 600 North River St., Ypsilanti, Mich. 48197.

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