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Gains Found for the Poor in Rigorous Preschool

May 9, 2001

Gains Found for the Poor in Rigorous Preschool


Poor children who attend intensive preschool classes are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be arrested than poor children who have not participated in such programs, according to a study that followed graduates of urban preschools for 15 years.

Although there have been previous studies of the effects of preschool education, none appear to have been as comprehensive and long-running as this one, which is being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin tracked 1,500 children from Chicago beginning in 1985, at age 5, until age 20 and concluded that programs like Head Start could pay dividends long after children had learned to read provided the programs were highly structured.

The findings come at an opportune time for the Bush administration, which is preparing a scripted, pre-reading curriculum for the nation's 16,000 Head Start centers, a loose confederation that has traditionally been operated with few set rules. By contrast, the child-care centers in Chicago that are the subject of the study adhere to rigorous reading lessons. They are financed under another federal program, Title I.

But the study also sounds an early warning about the Bush plan. The Chicago preschool program, which is operated by the public school system in 23 centers across the city, requires parents to participate in their children's homework assignments and also helps families arrange medical care and social services.

In setting priorities for Head Start, the Bush administration has thus far ranked those aspects of the program traditionally its cornerstones below reading, much to the concern of Head Start advocates.

"It's more than just providing basic literacy skills," said Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor of social work at Wisconsin, who was the lead author of the study. "You've got to put parents in classrooms, as well as kids."

The study being released today tracked 989 children, all born in 1980, who enrolled in the Chicago Child Parent Center Program no later than age 4, and were taught an average of 2.5 hours a day for 18 months. Nearly all children were living at or below the poverty level, and many of the children and the parents had to be recruited and cajoled to attend by the centers' staff, who canvassed for students door to door.

For the researchers, the persistence of the staff was a plus: it meant that the children's gains could not be attributed merely to their parents' initiative.

The educational careers of those children were compared with those of 550 other children of similar means from the same neighborhoods, few of whom attended any preschool at all.

The researchers found that fewer graduates of the Chicago program had been arrested for juvenile crimes (16.9 percent) than of those who attended less intensive preschools or no preschool (25.1 percent). More graduates of the program also graduated from high school (49.7 percent, compared with 38.5 percent). The preschoolers were also much less likely to be assigned to special-education classes, or to repeat a grade.

The Chicago study, which was financed by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education, fills an enormous void in the research on the effects of preschool on poor children. Few studies have examined such programs for more than a few years at a time, and those that have, in Michigan and North Carolina, for example, have followed only about 100 children each.

Last month, another group of researchers described an unpublished study that purported to show that children who spend most of their time in child-care are three times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems in kindergarten as those who are cared for primarily by their mothers. But that study followed children across the socioeconomic spectrum, and has thus far reported findings only through kindergarten.

In an editorial accompanying the study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Edward Zigler, a founder of Head Start in the late 1960's, argued that the results of the Chicago program were replicable. Dr. Zigler and a co-author, Sally Styfco, wrote that the Chicago findings "contradict the naysayers who believe that public schools cannot be fixed or that poor children cannot be helped because of nature or nurture."

Nonetheless, they acknowledged that in the Chicago program, "compared with population norms, crime rates were high and the high school completion rate was low."

Moreover, the relatively high performance of the Chicago program was not considered representative of the wide range of public preschools. A continuing study of 40 Head Start programs across the country, begun in 1997, has found that the typical graduate entered kindergarten knowing no more than two letters.

Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and an advocate for pre-reading programs, said that the Chicago study was encouraging because "it shows that if you have a clear focus, you can improve language and literacy, and have other good effects."

The Chicago program, founded in 1967, offers children an array of resources. In class, one teacher leads them through letter recognition games like Alphabet Bingo and Language Lotto. Outside class, another teacher is responsible for working with their parents or guardians, helping them, for example, unearth family photographs that the children might use to make a journal.

And because the centers are attached to elementary schools, one year's work builds on another and contacts with children's families are maintained.

"We're providing a foundation for academic success," said Armando Almendarez, the chief officer for early education of the Chicago public schools. "We know that success is tied to what is happening in the home environment, and that we can impact that environment."

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