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A good way to break the grip of poverty

June 7, 2011


Children and teacher in preschool.

High-quality preschool and early grade-school education can benefit children for as long as 25 years, a new University of Minnesota study finds.

Early education benefits disadvantaged children for decades

By Deane Morrison

A new University of Minnesota study shows that disadvantaged children who receive high-quality education between age 3 and third grade reap benefits to their economic and social well-being decades later, at age 28.

Moreover, the strongest benefits went to those at highest risk, namely males and preschool children whose parents were high school dropouts.

The study complements an earlier one led by the same researcher—child development professor Arthur Reynolds—that reported high economic returns on investment in early education, including 18 percent for a strong preschool program.

Reynolds and his colleagues conducted both studies on the Chicago Public Schools' federally funded Child Parent Centers (CPCs), established in 1967. In the current study, the researchers report on the status of more than 1,400 children born in 1979-1980 whom they have tracked for up to 25 years. The study is published in the June 10 issue of Science.

"This is the first time a big study like this has found effects of early education on economic well-being this far into adulthood," says Reynolds. "From the federal standpoint, CPC has been considered a model of how state and local governments could offer preschool programs. It has served 100,000 families."

"Half the achievement gap by age 10 between higher and lower [socioeconomic status] kids is already there at age 5. ... But state and federal policies don't reflect the knowledge of how much earlier these gaps appear, and, therefore, the need to start at age 3."

The children in CPC are from low-income, largely (93 percent) African American families living in poor neighborhoods. Through CPC, children between 3 and 9 take part in half- or full-day educational activities emphasizing language and math skills, all taught by teachers with bachelor's degrees and certified in early childhood education. Parents receive parenting skills workshops and other family services, and their involvement rate is as high as 80 percent. 

A dedicated team

Arthur Reynolds is director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study and co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative, a partnership of the University of Minnesota and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis dedicated to identifying cost-effective public policies for promoting well-being from birth to young adulthood. His colleagues in this study were Judy Temple, Humphrey School of Public Affairs; Suh-Ruu Ou; and Barry White, all at the University of Minnesota; and Irma Arteaga at the University of Missouri.

The Child Parent Centers are the second-oldest federally funded preschool program.

The key to CPC's success lies in the quality of both the teachers and the program, which also includes the option for more than one year of enrollment, small classes, and emphasis on the continuity of learning from preschool to early grade school.

Numbers tell the tale

The 989 children who completed a preschool program through CPC reaped several benefits compared to 550 children in a comparison group, who didn't attend the preschool program but received a full-day kindergarten intervention.

The numbers below are percentages, given for the preschool group vs. the comparison group, respectively, at age 28. 

• High school completion rate: 81.5 vs. 75.1 (77.5 vs. 63.5 for
  males alone)

• On-time high school completion: 44.3 vs. 36.6

• Moderate or higher socioeconomic status: 34.4 vs. 28.6

• Any health insurance coverage: 75.9 vs. 63.9

Adults who had completed preschool also had lower rates of trouble with the law and drugs. Here are some of those percentages for the 28-year-olds:

• Drug and alcohol abuse: 16.5 vs. 23.0 (33.7 vs. 42.9 for
  males alone)

• Felony arrest: 19.3 vs. 24.6 (13.9 vs. 25.2 for children of high school dropouts)

• Jail or other incarceration: 15.2 vs. 21.1 

"The study is also significant because it shows for the first time that extended services until third grade are linked to effects above and beyond preschool," Reynolds says. "For example, those who had four to six years of intervention had a 48.6 percent on-time graduation rate—versus 31.3 percent for those with less than four years intervention—plus higher levels of socioeconomic status and health insurance coverage. "

A way but no will

The average CPC preschool program costs about $9,000 per child over one-and-a-half years, Reynolds says. For an extended program of four to six years, the tab is about $14,000 per child—"a relatively modest cost for the benefits."

Unfortunately, the United States still spends very little on prevention, Reynolds laments.

"Only 3 percent of the $14 billion allocated to school districts to serve low-income children under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the "No Child Left Behind" Act) goes to preschool, yet preschool programs are one of the most cost-effective of all social programs," he states.

"Half the achievement gap by age 10 between higher and lower SES kids is already there at age 5," he adds. "The gap predicts outcomes. But state and federal policies don't reflect the knowledge of how much earlier these gaps appear, and, therefore, the need to start at age 3."

He notes that while Minnesota is "close to the bottom among states that finance pre-K programs," a new 'Race to the Top" challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Education may change things. It offers a total of $500 million for states to improve the quality and access to such programs for children, especially ones at high risk, and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has said the state will apply for one.

"We have found a chain of positive influences initiated by large advantages in school readiness and parent involvement," says Reynolds. "This leads to better school performance and enrollment in higher quality schools, and ultimately to higher educational attainment and socioeconomic status.

"It's hard to change the status quo. But now we're realizing that it makes a difference, and we have to prioritize investments we know are effective based on research and divest in ones that aren't."

 

Tags: College of Education and Human Development

Related Links

Human Capital Research Collaborative

Institute of Child Development

College of Education and Human Development

Arthur Reynolds