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A 14-Year Study of Preschoolers Finds Long-Term Gains for Disadvantaged

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Enrollment in high-quality preschool day-care programs and added academic help in the first three years of school significantly improve the chances of disadvantaged children to achieve school success.

That is the principal finding of a 14-year, $12-million study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"We are now able to show that quality preschool education has a significant long-term impact on intelligence of high-risk children, and that the impact is positive," said Craig Ramey, the physician who directs the study, which is called the Abecedarian Project.

"This is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever conducted and one of the largest sample sizes ever studied," he said.

The project was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the North Carolina Department of Human Resources, and the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The results of Dr. Ramey's research mirror the findings of several recent studies, including those of the "Perry Preschool Project," which was conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and is considered a major indicator of the impact of early schooling on later development.

Positive Impact

"I think there's a movement under way that our findings support and perhaps could help accelerate," he said. "Programs that show positive impact on the academic achievement of children and show that disadvantaged children can do much better are likely to fuel that process."

From 1972 to 1977, Dr. Ramey and a team of 35 scientists enrolled in the project 111 infants--90 percent of whom were black--from poor families in Chapel Hill. Half of the children were designated as the control group and given free medical care, dietary supplements, and social-service support for their families.

The other half, the experimental group, were provided with the same services but were also enrolled in a day-care center operated on the university's campus by staff members of the child-development center.

Once the children reached age 5 and began kindergarten, each of the two groups was again divided in half. Half of the original control group began receiving extra help with schoolwork from master teachers, while the other half did not.

Half of the children in the original experimental group also received additional academic help, while the other half did not.

Fewer Failures

"All of the more than 90 children who have remained in the area and the study have now completed the 2nd grade," according to Dr. Ramey. "Those who received educational assistance before and after kindergarten averaged almost 10 iq points higher than the children who received none, and they experienced only half as many school failures."

In addition, the study found that the early-intervention program sharpened children's language skills and boosted their achievement-test scores from the bottom 25 percent to near the national average, according to Dr. Ramey.

The performance of children who were given either early or late help fell approximately midway between the group that received both and the

group that received none, "which suggests that it's possible to intervene at different times and still have a beneficial effect," Dr. Ramey noted.

Longevity of Gains

In the next phase of the study, researchers will assess the young participants after all of them have completed the 6th grade to determine to what degree the gains continue.

Dr. Ramey said he also intends to publish a monograph chronicling the study's findings to date. And he is preparing testimony based on the research to present before the U.S. Congress to encourage greater funding of early-intervention programs.

The results, he added, will also be communicated to "a variety of decisionmakers at different levels" for the same purpose.

While noting that high-quality day care for poor children would be expensive if it were to be implemented nationwide, Dr. Rameyd out that its benefits include savings in the billions of dollars spent yearly on academic retention.

"When a child is retained in a grade in North Carolina, it costs approximately $4,500 for him to repeat that year," he said. "You can get a lot of good day care for $4,500."

Dr. Ramey and his colleagues at the center have also begun to work with seven other universities on a new $18-million follow-up study "The Infant Health and Development Program."

Co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and the Maternal and Child Health Division of the U.S. Public Health Service, the program will attempt to determine whether the same kind of early intervention can produce comparable results in low-birthweight and prematurely born children.

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