As early as the 1850s citizens concerned with child welfare promoted the benefits of a nurturing home and education as the remedy to a lifetime of poverty, addiction and crime.
In well-meaning but, as it turned out, misguided attempts to save poor, urban children from their certain fates, and protect communities from crime and violence, several philanthropic societies founded programs to serve these children based on the idea that removing them from their “toxic” homes and families and putting them in positive environments was the answer.
It was a “bootstrap” idea — given education and wholesome living conditions, opportunity would knock and these children would answer. There were no data to support this idea, but it seemed that it should work and wealthy patrons poured millions into the efforts.
Fast-forward a little over 100 years … to Ypsilanti, Mich. where a group of educators were promoting the benefits of a nurturing home and education as a remedy for a lifetime of poverty, addiction and crime. Only this time their ideas were based on theory and research.
One of the principles they identified was that removing children from their families does not lead to positive outcomes.
Instead, they proposed to test the hypothesis that targeted, intensive services to families combined with high-quality early care and education would lead to success in school and life. And so the HighScope/Perry Preschool Project began.
Other carefully controlled social experiments followed, among them the Abecedarian Project and Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) project.
Sixty years later (how time flies) the evidence is in. Continuing research on how the brain grows and functions and new findings about the critical importance of attachment in the social/emotional development of children lead to one — and only one- conclusion: early childhood matters.
The CPC project, launched in 1980, differed in two important ways from earlier studies.
First, it included a much larger sample size. Second, the experimental design used existing infrastructure including public schools, publicly-funded home visiting programs, and other community supports to deliver the program to families.
The per-child cost was an order of magnitude less than earlier studies, and comparable to what governments are currently spending on preschool programs.
Researchers followed the initial cohort of children through their academic careers and into early adulthood. The results? Increased graduation rates, decreased grade retention and assignment to special education, and lower rates of interaction with the juvenile criminal system.
According to a 2001 analysis of the program, participation in preschool is positively associated with behavior and learning outcomes that are accurate predictors of adult economic and social well being. Benefits to society are measured both in dollars saved through academic and social success, and dollars contributed through increased personal earning — and spending — power.
Based on the evidence, we should go forward with plans to increase access to preschool. We just need to keep in mind lessons learned over the last 150 years: Children are only part of the story — strong families are the whole story.
About the author: Mary Manner is coordinator of the Great Start Traverse Bay/Manistee Collaborative. Its Great Start/Great Futures Summit will be held March 18 at NMC’s Hagerty Center. Register at www.tcchamber.org
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