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Life Way After Head Start

November 21, 2004

Life Way After Head Start

By DAVID L. KIRP
The power of education to level the playing field has long been an American article of faith. Education is the ''balance wheel of the social machinery,'' argued Horace Mann, the first great advocate of public schooling. ''It prevents being poor.'' But that belief has been undermined by research findings -- seized on ever since by skeptics -- that federal programs like Head Start, designed to benefit poor children, actually have little long-term impact.

Now evidence from an experiment that has lasted nearly four decades may revive Horace Mann's faith. ''Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40,'' was released earlier this week. It shows that an innovative early education program can make a marked difference in the lives of poor minority youngsters -- not just while they are in school but for decades afterward. The 123 participants in this experiment, says David Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and an architect of the Clinton administration's original welfare reform plan, ''may be the most powerfully influential group in the recent history of social science.''

The life stories of the Perry students have been tracked since they left preschool in the 1960's. Like so much in education research, the findings have been known mainly in professional circles. But this latest dispatch from the field, confirming the remarkable and enduring impact of a long-ago experience, should alter the way we understand preschool and, maybe, the way society invests in the future.

The study began without fanfare in the fall of 1962, several years before Head Start was conceived. In the mostly blue-collar town Ypsilanti, Mich., 21 3- and 4-year-old children started preschool. All of them, as well as 37 more youngsters who enrolled over the next three years, were black. They came from poor families, and the South Side neighborhood, with its rundown public housing and high crime rates, was a rough place to grow up.

Based on past experience, it was a near certainty that most of these kids would fail in school. During the previous decade, not a single class in the Perry elementary school had ever scored above the 10th percentile on national achievement tests, while across town, in the school that served the children of well-off professionals, no class had ever scored below the 90th percentile.

The reformers who developed the High/Scope Perry model hoped that exposure at an early age to a program emphasizing cognitive development could rewrite this script. Most children attended Perry for two years, three hours a day, five days a week. The curriculum emphasized problem-solving rather than unstructured play or ''repeat after me'' drills. The children were viewed as active learners, not sponges; a major part of their daily routine involved planning, carrying out and reviewing what they were learning. Teachers were well trained and decently paid, and there was a teacher for every five youngsters. They made weekly home visits to parents, helping them teach their own children. ''The message was, 'Read to your child,' '' one woman, whose daughter went to Perry in 1962, remembered. ''If you read the newspaper, put your child on your lap, read out loud and ask her, 'What did I just read?' When you take her to the grocery store, have her count the change.''

Even though prosperous children had thrived in similar settings for well over a century, 3-year-olds from poverty backgrounds had never had the same chance. Leading developmental psychologists cautioned against the idea. Such an intellectually rigorous regime, they argued, could actually harm such children by asking too much of them.

David Weikart, the moving force behind Perry Preschool, was not convinced. The experts had a theory but no evidence, and Weikart decided to conduct an experiment. From a group of 123 South Side neighborhood children, 58 were randomly assigned to the Perry program, while the rest, identical in virtually all respects, didn't attend preschool. Random assignment is the research gold standard because the ''treatment'' -- in this case, preschool -- best explains any subsequent differences between the two groups.

Early results were discouraging. In reading and arithmetic, the preschoolers' achievement scores at 7 and 8 weren't much better than the control group's, and while the preschoolers' IQ scores spiked, that difference soon disappeared. Those results were consistent with the dispiriting conclusion of a 1969 nationwide evaluation of Head Start. That study's key finding -- that the boost in test scores recorded by Head Start children faded by second grade -- was widely interpreted to mean that Head Start and, by implication, most other early childhood education programs for poor kids, were a waste of time.

But in Ypsilanti the researchers didn't give up. They collected data every year from age 3 through 11, then at ages 14, 15, 19, 27 and now 40 -- an astonishingly long time span in the research annals. Just as astonishingly, they have kept track of 97 percent of the surviving group. ''I've found people on the streets, gone to crack houses where there were AK-47's,'' said Van Loggins, a gym teacher who coached many of the participants when they were teenagers and who has been interviewing them for 25 years. ''I'm bilingual -- ghetto and English.''

Not only has the Perry study set records for longevity, but it also asks the truly pertinent question: what is the impact of preschool, not on the test scores of 7-year-olds but on their life chances? The answer is positive -- a well-designed program really works.

As they progressed through school, the Perry children were less likely to be assigned to a special education class for the mentally retarded. Their attitude toward school was also better, and their parents were more enthusiastic about their youngsters' schooling. Their high-school grade point average was higher. By age 19, two-thirds had graduated from high school, compared with 45 percent of those who didn't attend preschool.

Most remarkably, the impact of those preschool years still persists. By almost any measure we might care about -- education, income, crime, family stability -- the contrast with those who didn't attend Perry is striking. When they were 27, the preschool group scored higher on tests of literacy. Now they are in their 40's, many with children and even grandchildren of their own. Nearly twice as many have earned college degrees (one has a Ph.D.). More of them have jobs: 76 percent versus 62 percent. They are more likely to own their home, own a car and have a savings account. They are less likely to have been on welfare. They earn considerably more -- $20,800 versus $15,300 -- and that difference pushes them well above the poverty line.

The crime statistics reveal similarly significant differences. Compared with the control group, fewer preschoolers have gone on to be arrested for violent crimes, drug-related crimes or property crimes. Only about half as many (28 percent versus 52 percent) have been sentenced to prison or jail. Preschool also seems to have affected their decisions about family life. More of the males in the Perry contingent have been married (68 percent versus 51 percent, though they are also more likely than those who didn't attend Perry to have been married more than once) and almost twice as many have raised their own children (57 percent versus 30 percent). These men report fewer serious complaints about their health and are less likely to use drugs.

The newest report attaches a dollar-and-cents figure to this good news. Economists estimate that the return to society is more than $250,000 (calculated in 2000 dollars) on an investment of just $15,166 -- that's 17 dollars for every dollar invested.

There are no miracles here. Not everyone who attended Perry became a model citizen -- the crime figures alone make that plain -- and some of those who didn't attend preschool have fared well. But because their opportunities are so constricted, the odds are stacked against kids who grow up in neighborhoods like Ypsilanti's South Side. Bluntly put, these are the children of whom we expect the least -- and overall, the life histories of the control group confirm those expectations.

By contrast, many of those who went to Perry found their way to more stable lives. One graduate, a sales manager, has moved back to the South Side neighborhood, where he devotes much of his time to his church group, ''giving back'' to the community. ''I'm still using the discipline of school,'' he said. ''The harder you work in school or in life, the more you get out of it.'' One Perry alum said that when she was in her mid-20's, living on welfare and ''borrowing'' from her mother, she ''woke up one day to decide that was just wrong. I apologized to my mother and went to work in the factory. When I had the money, I bought Mom all new living-room furniture. I stopped dating the wrong kind of guys, and eventually I got married.'' Now she's a union leader, and when she had children of her own, there was no doubt they'd go to preschool.

Why did Perry have such an impact? Though the data can't provide a definitive answer, a plausible interpretation is that the experience proved to be a timely intervention, altering the arc of these children's lives. Preschool gave them the intellectual tools to do better in school. When they succeeded academically, they became more committed to education, and so they stayed on. Then, because a diploma opened up new economic opportunities, crime proved a less appealing alternative.

The strategy first developed at Perry is now packaged as the High/Scope curriculum and is widely used across the nation. Other well-conceived preschool initiatives have also generated impressive long-term results, including the Chicago school district's Child-Parent Center Program, which brings mothers and relatives into the schools, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in which intervention begins during the very first weeks of an infant's life and carries on until kindergarten.

These successes have given ammunition to those who champion expanded preschool opportunities -- not just for poor children but for all children. Oklahoma and Georgia have been leaders in the movement for universal prekindergarten, and two years ago, Florida became the first state to pass a constitutional amendment requiring ''high quality'' preschool for all 4-year-olds. ''I testified in Florida,'' said Evelyn Moore, one of the original teachers at Perry Preschool, who is now president of the National Black Child Development Institute. ''The research has been vital in getting people to understand why early childhood education matters.'' Give us the child to age 7, the Jesuits say, and we'll give you the man. Give us the child at age 3, these findings suggest, and with quality preschool it's possible to work wonders.

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of ''Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education.''


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