Early investments have big payoffs. We know this from the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan that is often credited for the expansion of Head Start. We know it from a handful of other longitudinal studies – including a recently released 15-year follow-up study of Chicago preschoolers – that tracked youngsters five to 10 years after preschool and found big differences in academic performance and risk behaviors.
The power of early investments has been confirmed once again with new findings on the children (now in their 20s) who participated in the Abecedarian Preschool Project in Chapel Hill, N.C. The study provided randomly selected children born to low-IQ, poorly educated, single mothers with up to eight years of infant and child development programming. To ensure a good comparison, the families of children in both the experimental and the control groups were provided with the full range of health and social supports. (Applied Developmental Science, Vol.6, No.1 2002).
The early results were impressive. The children in the experimental and control groups started out the same – all within the normal range on developmental tests at age 9 months. By age 3 there was a 30-point IQ difference between the two groups. Children who were born healthy were on the verge of mental retardation.
The story continues as the children entered elementary school. The experimental and control preschool groups were each split to test the impact of an after-school program. The school-age intervention was provided for half of each group for three more years.
Those who had not received the intensive preschool program benefited slightly from the school-age intervention (age 8 reading scores of 86 vs. 83). Those who received both the preschool and the school-age programs did the best (96 vs. 92). By age 15, the children who had not received the preschool program were four times more likely to have been placed in special education and almost twice as likely to have repeated a grade.
At age 21, those who were in the preschool program still had significantly higher scores on reading and math tests as young adults, had completed more years of education, were more likely to be in college and showed fewer teenage pregnancies than those in the control group. This is the first longitudinal study of preschool intervention that shows impacts on reading and math proficiency that last into adulthood. The researchers attribute the impact to the fact that the program started with infants.
Important study? Absolutely. Why share it in Youth Today? Because the effects of the school-age program were minimal. That program maintained the preschool benefits for reading, but was not by itself nearly as strong as the preschool intervention.
Every youth worker, teacher, parent and young person believes that children need early and sustained supports. The early foundation is critical, but we can’t expect kids to coast for 15 years because they got a good sendoff. Equally important, every one of us believes that young people who did not get great sendoffs can rally in the third quarter.
What we believe, however, has to be squared with what researchers report. When powerful studies like the Abecedarian project question the relative power of investments in supplemental K-3 programs, the arguments for investments in programs for adolescents get even tougher unless we tackle the elephant in the room – the K-12 educational system.
Supplemental supports can have long-term impacts. Results of the Quantum Opportunities Program and the High/Scope longitudinal study of under-performing disadvantaged youth (“Challenging the Potential,” 1992) found that an intensive immersion in a four-week residential program had a long-term impact on the educational outcomes of participants.
The message I take away from the Abecedarian Project is this: Early intervention counts, but so does quality. The preschool project reached children in their critical early years with a high-quality, integrated set of educational and support services to the children and their parents. The school-age project got them later and for less time. But it also relinquished control of the educational experience to schools.
Until we conduct longitudinal research on the middle and high school innovations that are retooling the provision of academic and social education from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., we will not have the evidence we need to argue that powerful mid-course corrections are not only possible, but will have predictably positive outcomes. The recent report, “Community Programs to Promote Youth Development,” issued by the National Research Council (www.nap.edu) calls for more experimental research. We need to get behind this recommendation big time.