As experts try to determine whether early education gives a meaningful boost to children in general and poor kids in particular, the researcher with the clipboard has become almost as common a sight in preschools as the sandbox.
The following five studies make the case that children do benefit from pre-k, though critics have noted some caveats.
Between 1962 and 1967, researchers randomly assigned 123 poor African-American 3- and 4-year-olds in Ypsilanti, Michigan to attend either the experimental Perry Preschool or no preschool at all. The Perry Preschool provided one highly trained teacher for every six children; instructors also visited the children’s families at home once a week. While temporary gains on IQ tests didn’t last, students from the experimental group at age 40 were making more money, more likely to be employed, more likely to have graduated from high school, and less likely to commit crimes than their peers in the control group. Original estimates suggested a savings to society of $17 for every $1 spent, but a November 2009 study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and colleagues revised the figure downward to between $7 and $10 for every $1 spent. Critics caution that because most of the savings came from a reduction in crime rates, similar results are unlikely from programs open to all families since children from middle-class households are less likely to commit crimes.
Since 1986, researchers have followed children originally enrolled either in the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, a high-quality preschool with social services, or in a control group. The study has shown that program participants have higher reading and math achievement, are less likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to be arrested as juveniles than peers in the control group. Many experts say the study’s strength is that it demonstrates public schools can operate high-quality preschool with lasting benefits. But critics dispute the study’s validity because they say it is not randomized.
Between 1972 and 1977, 112 poor, mostly African-American children in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were randomly assigned to attend or not attend a year-round, full-day comprehensive child development program from infancy to age 5. At age 21, program participants had higher reading and math scores and were more likely to go to college than non-participants. Participants were also less likely to smoke and be on welfare. The program cost $63,000 per child over the five years, but researchers say the future savings are $2.50 for every dollar spent.
This ongoing study focuses on Tulsa’s state-funded, universal pre-k program. It shows that, overall, children participating in the city’s one-year program had a 52 percent gain in letter and word recognition, a 27 percent gain in spelling and a 21 percent gain in applied problem-solving. Findings show that Hispanic and low-income children benefit most. Pre-k advocates often cite this study because it’s one of the few that looks at an economically diverse sample and shows that middle-class children also derive significant benefits from early education.
A large-scale randomized study released in January 2010 found that Head Start programs are of good quality, and Head Start classrooms were of higher quality than classrooms in other center-based programs. The study of some 5,000 Head Start students found favorable cognitive, socio-emotional and health impacts for children who attended Head Start, as well as positive impacts on parenting practices during the 2002-2003 program year. However, the study found that most of the advantages that students gain in Head Start fade by the end of first grade. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the study’s results reveal the need for a more coordinated system of early care and education.