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Gains Tied to Preschool Program Persist, Study Finds

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Children who participated in a multi-year early-education program beginning in infancy continue to show "enhanced intellectual development'' over their peers at age 15, a new study shows.

The "Abecedarian Project,'' launched in 1972 by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., is considered one of the most intensive studies of the effects of early-childhood education on low-income children.

Other studies--such as the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich.--have tracked for longer periods of time the progress of children who received one or two years of preschool. (See Education Week, April 21, 1993.)

While charting significant social gains among those who attended preschool, however, such studies typically show that children's I.Q gains tend to fade over time.

The Abecedarian Project, which served all children in a treatment group for five years and some for eight, shows intellectual gains "can last well into the teen years'' when services begin sooner in life and last longer.

The study involved 111 children, most African-American, who were born in Chapel Hill between 1972 and 1977 and considered at high risk of school problems based on parents' income, education, and other factors. The children in the project were offered either preschool, special help in elementary school, both, or neither.

Initially, half the children were placed in a full-day, year-round educational day-care center at the university and the others were assigned to a control group that did not. The average age of entry into the preschool was 4.4 months.

From age 5 to age 8, half of the children who had attended preschool and half of those in the control group were offered extra help in school from "master teachers.'' The school-age program also included customized activities to involve parents and home/school resource teachers to help address family needs.

In the preschool program, which stressed language development, literacy, and social skills, the caregiver-to-child ratio was one to three for infants and gradually increased to one to four by age 4.

The backgrounds of the caregivers varied, but all received ongoing training and were coached to "talk to the youngsters in appropriate ways,'' give them a variety of objects to explore, show them books, and read to them frequently.

Preschool Role Strongest

The children who received preschool services showed consistent I.Q. gains from age 3 on and held a four-point I.Q. edge at 15. They also outscored the control group in mathematics and reading and were less likely to be placed in special-education classes or retained in grade.

Children who also received services while school aged scored somewhat better in reading but no better in mathematics than those who only had the preschool services. Having the extra help in school also did not appear to reduce retention in grade or placement in special education.

The children who only received services while school aged, meanwhile, did not fare much better overall than those who received no services.

The study "clearly indicates that the preschool phase of treatment was most strongly associated with the improvement in academic functioning,'' said Frances Campbell, a senior investigator at the Frank Porter Graham center who has been the Abecedarian Project's principal investigator since 1990.

Craig Ramey, who founded the project and was its director until 1990, said the study "for the first time ever really establishes via empirical methods that intervention during the early years of life is even more important than beginning at kindergarten.''

Quality the Key

Ms. Campbell said the findings underscore the need to provide "excellent early environments'' for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, with subsidies for low-income children if necessary.

While conceding that an intervention as intensive as the Abecedarian Project is "a very expensive proposition,'' she said, it is "not out of line with the cost of good care.''

The only available cost analysis of the project to date estimates that, in 1986 dollars, the preschool cost $8,495 per year for infants up to 18 months and $7,943 for children from 18 months to 5 years.

In terms of content, said Mr. Ramey, who is now the director of the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, "nothing about the program makes it particularly difficult to replicate.''

Ms. Campbell said the study does not necessarily endorse formal, full-time day care for all children starting in infancy, which could prove controversial from a policy standpoint. She suggested the quality of the adult-child interaction is what matters, whether children are in centers or home settings.

She and Mr. Ramey pointed out, however, that another Frank Porter Graham project in which parents were taught and provided materials to replicate Abecedarian-type activities at home did not generate the same positive effects.

Mr. Ramey also noted that while many of the control-group children were placed in day care or preschool programs at an early age by their parents--and some appeared to benefit--they still did not fare as well as the Abecedarian group.

Copies of the paper, "Mid-Adolescent Outcomes for High-Risk Students: An Examination of the Continuing Effects of Early Intervention,'' are available for free from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, Attention: Frances Campbell, Campus Box 8180, 105 Smith Level Rd., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-8180.

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