August 27, 2007

Early Childhood Program Shows Benefits

Photo of a female college graduate smiling

By the time they reached adulthood, graduates of an intensive early childhood education program for poor children showed higher educational attainment, lower rates of serious crime and incarceration, and lower rates of depressive symptoms, a study has found..

The Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program in the Chicago Public School System was established in 1967 and is still operating, currently funded through the No Child Left Behind Act. The program provides intensive instruction in reading and math from pre-kindergarten through third grade, combined with frequent educational field trips. The children's parents also receive job skills training, parenting skills training, educational classes and social services. They volunteer in their children's classrooms, assist with field trips and attend parenting support groups.

A research team led by University of Minnesota investigators Dr. Arthur J. Reynolds and Dr. Judy A. Temple set out to assess the effects of the CPC program. Funded in part by NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the researchers followed 1,539 low-income children from the age of 3 or 4 through age 24. Roughly 1,000 children were enrolled in the CPC program and 500 in alternative early childhood education programs for comparison. The children were 93% African American and 7% Hispanic. Families moved into and out of the area during the time the study took place, so not all children completed all components of the programs.

The researchers assessed the CPC program in terms of the children's educational achievement, need for remedial education, involvement with the child welfare and foster care system, economic status, involvement with the criminal justice system, health status and mental health.

The results — reported in the August Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine — strongly suggest that the CPC program produced lasting benefits, even for children who completed only part of the program. By age 24, for example, children who participated only in the preschool program had lower rates of depression, felony arrests and incarceration, were more likely to attend 4-year colleges and were more likely to have health insurance than children who did not participate in the preschool program. Graduates of both the preschool and school age components of the CPC program were more likely to attend college and to be employed full time, and less likely to receive public assistance or to have a disability than those who participated in other programs. Children who participated in only the school age component of the CPC program also showed benefits in adult life. By age 24, these children had lower rates of disability and were less likely to receive public assistance.

Because the study didn't assign children randomly to the 2 groups, it can't conclusively prove that the CPC program caused the gains observed in its graduates. Nevertheless, Dr. Duane Alexander, Director of NICHD, says, "These results strongly suggest that comprehensive early education programs can have benefits well into adult life. A comparatively small investment early in life is associated with gains in education, economic standing, mental health and other areas."

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