Editorial: Study puts preschool doubts to rest

  • Updated: August 15, 2007 - 9:19 PM

U of M research shows what works in early education.

Though interest has mounted in the good that early childhood education can do an at-risk child -- and an at-risk state -- doubters have persisted. Skeptics often claim that the educational gains preschool imparts don't last, or that only a few expensive, elite, hard-to-replicate programs can give at-risk children a real advantage.

Not so, says new research led by University of Minnesota professors Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple, published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. They've been following into adulthood nearly 1,000 low-income minority children who attended a Chicago school-based preschool program in 1985-86.

The results are heartening: Compared with a similar-demographic cohort of children who did not attend preschool, but -- significantly -- had the benefit of all-day kindergarten, the preschool alumni were better off on a wide range of measures. More had finished high school, and were enrolled in college. More had full-time employment and health insurance coverage. Fewer had been arrested for felony crimes. Fewer reported "depressive symptoms," a marker for mental health issues, or physical disabilities.

Those results were produced not at an exclusive country day school, but Chicago's Child Parent Centers, a public school program that has functioned for 40 years inside or adjacent to urban neighborhood elementary schools. Its cost per student is $5,000 -- not cheap, but not nearly as steep as tuition at many private preschools.

What makes the Chicago program effective? Researcher Reynolds attributes its success to several things, all of which have implications for Minnesota as it charts its own early education course:

• It identifies and enrolls at-risk students, those already deemed to be lagging in either skills or learning opportunity at age 3.

• Literacy is emphasized. Other skills are imparted to 3- and 4-year-olds too, but learning to read is job one.

• Parental involvement is intensive, and integral to the lessons. Parents are taught how to continue their child's learning at home.

• A unified approach for age 3 to grade 3 makes possible a seamless transition between preschool and elementary school.

• Certified, well-educated teachers staff the program. That assures a high-quality, stable staff.

"This package is hard to beat," said Reynolds. With the results it is producing, it should also be hard for Minnesota policymakers to ignore. Thanks to researchers like Reynolds, Minnesotans don't have to simply throw well-intentioned money at preschool programs or all-day kindergarten and hope for good results. They can -- and should -- invest in what works.

  • THE PRESCHOOL EDGE

    Nearly 20 years after attending a Chicago school-based preschool program for low-income minority children, participants still showed measurable advantages over a demographically similar group whose formal schooling began with all-day kindergarten. To read about it in the Journal of the American Medical Association, see www.startribune.com/a3197.

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