School & District Management

Preschool Study Finds Positive Effects For Poor Children

By Linda Jacobson — May 16, 2001 6 min read
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A newly published study on a long-running preschool program in Chicago provides further evidence that well-designed educational services in early childhood can have positive, lasting effects for disadvantaged children.

The research, which appeared last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, focused on the 34-year-old Child-Parent Center program. The authors found that the children who had participated in the half- day preschool program were more likely to go on to complete high school and less likely to become delinquent than those who didn’t take part.

“This is first-rate, solid science,” Edward Zigler, a professor of psychology at Yale University and one of the architects of the federal Head Start preschool program, said in a press release. “It shows beyond reasonable doubt that good- quality child care and development programs for disadvantaged children can sharply cut delinquency and improve school success.”

While other longitudinal studies of former preschoolers also point to positive outcomes for poor children, the findings from Chicago are significant because the program is not a small demonstration project, researchers said last week.

The study, which was financed by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education, comes as state policymakers are looking for ways to expand early- childhood-education programs and talking more about offering such services to all children, not just those in poverty.

“This study indicates that public investments in early educational programs in the first decade of life can contribute positively to children’s later success,” the authors write.

The researchers, led by Arthur J. Reynolds, an associate professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed a sample of more than 1,500 mostly African-American children who were born in 1980.

Almost 1,000 of the children attended the federally funded Child-Parent Center program, which provides comprehensive health and social services as well as an emphasis on early literacy and parental involvement. Services continue for the children through 3rd grade.

The remaining children in the sample either attended an alternative preschool program or went straight into kindergarten.

More Time, More Gains

When the study participants had reached age 20, those who had been enrolled in the program as preschoolers had a high school completion rate that was 29 percent higher than those who hadn’t attended one of the centers—49.7 percent, compared with 38.5 percent.

The proportion of those in the experimental group who were later held back a grade in school was also much lower than for those in the comparison group: 23 percent vs. 38.4 percent. And 14.4 percent of the children in the Child-Parent centers later needed special education services, compared with 24.6 percent of those who hadn’t participated in the program.

The researchers also found that the longer a child participated in the program, the bigger the payoff. Those who had been enrolled for four to six years were less likely to be held back in school, by a margin of 21.9 percent vs. 32.3 percent, than those who had participated for just one to three years. The earliest children enrolled was age 3.

Juvenile-arrest records were also reviewed to determine whether the program had an effect on delinquency. By age 18, 16.9 percent of the preschool group had been arrested at least once, compared with 25.1 percent of the comparison group. Arrests for violent crime were also lower for those who had been in the program—9 percent, compared with 15.3 percent.

The researchers acknowledge, however, that even for the group that participated in the program, dropout rates and rates of delinquency were much higher than the national average, and that such programs alone “cannot ameliorate the effects of continuing disadvantages children may face.”

Still, the findings were also hailed last week by members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a Washington-based advocacy group of law-enforcement officials and survivors of crime.

“Quality child-care programs are among the most powerful weapons in the fight to reduce crime and violence,” argued Gilbert G. Gallegos, the president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Fraternal Order of Police and a member of Fight Crime.

Similar Findings

Results from the study echo those from two other well-known longitudinal studies.

For instance, the Carolina Abecedarian Project began in 1972 and provided year-round child-care and education services to 57 children from birth through age 8. A follow-up study of a group of adults at age 21 found that those who had received the services were more likely than those who hadn’t participated to perform well on tests of intelligence, pursue higher education, and postpone having children.

Another program, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, began in 1962. Researchers are still following the lives of the 123 African-Americans who were randomly assigned either to that preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., or to a control group.

When looking at the Perry Preschool study participants at age 27, the researchers found that those who had attended the program had had fewer arrests and were earning more money than those from the control group. Those from the experimental group were also more likely to complete high school, stay married longer, and own a home.

Lawrence J. Schweinhart, the chairman of the research division of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and one of the researchers who launched the Perry Preschool study, said that because Mr. Reynolds’ study is not as tightly controlled as the model programs, it’s difficult to determine just what characteristics of the Chicago centers made a difference.

Even so, the study on the Chicago program shows that effective programs can be implemented on a large scale, said W. Steven Barnett, a professor of education and public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who is also involved in the follow-up of the Perry Preschool study participants at age 40.

He added that some differences in findings from the various studies were probably due in part to the different settings for the research.

Researchers on the Abecedarian Project, for example, haven’t reported significant effects on arrest rates because Chapel Hill, a college town, doesn’t have the kind of crime statistics found in Chicago, or even Ypsilanti, which is located just outside Detroit.

Certified Teachers

One distinctive feature of the Chicago Child-Parent centers is that the teachers in the program are certified—the kind of staffing that many early- childhood-education programs cannot afford to provide.

“I do think that is important,” said Armando M. Almendarez, the chief officer for language, culture, and early-childhood education for the 432,000-student Chicago school system. “I also feel that the key is continuing professional development.”

The Child-Parent centers are different from most other preschool programs because they are financed with federal Title I dollars, a part of the education budget that historically has been spent on K-12 students. The annual budget for the Chicago program is about $9 million.

“It’s a well- funded program with highly qualified teachers who are making good pay,” Mr. Barnett said. “They didn’t say, ‘How can we do this cheaply?’ ”

A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office showed that only about 17 percent of the school districts receiving Title I funding were using the money to serve children before they reached kindergarten. (“Districts Utilize Title I Flexibility To Prepare Little Ones for School,” Feb. 14, 2001.)

Before he left the federal Education Department, former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley urged school districts to increase the percentage of Title I aid being used for preschool education.

Barnett said, “Wouldn’t we want to make this available to all districts with high proportions of poor children?”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Preschool Study Finds Positive Effects For Poor Children

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