Dallas, TX –
The trip began almost 50 years ago with the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This bold social experiment created a comprehensive early childhood intervention program for a group of extremely impoverished 4-year-olds. Based on past experience, it was almost certain that every one of these kids would fail in school. During the previous decade, not one class at the Perry Elementary School had ever scored above the 10th percentile on a national achievement test. Across town, the elementary school that served the children of well-off professionals had never had a class that scored below the 90th percentile. These depressing statistics presented an irresistible challenge to the program's creators; could a high quality, comprehensive preschool experience make a difference for children that society had essentially given up on?
It's a question that could be asked of our youngest and most at-risk children. Less than eight percent of Texas' early childhood programs meet national standards for quality and our public school pre-k, which serves thousands of at risk children, has no class size limit or student to teacher ratio. So it's no real surprise that almost half of Dallas school district kindergartners are below the national developmental norm. Tragically, that's about the same percentage of kids in our district who never make it to high school graduation. You don't need a degree in economics to understand those statistics.
The Perry Preschool Project researchers began compiling an impressive set of stats as they tackled their community's challenge of following the progress of children enrolled in quality preschools and that of the control group of kids who received no intervention through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and middle age.
As the Perry Project children moved through public school, the effects became very apparent. They were significantly less likely to skip school, be assigned to special education, or to repeat a grade than those in the control group and the majority graduated from high school. And the impact didn't end there. Half as many had been arrested and many attended college. The majority were employed, owned homes and earned an average of 25 percent more than their control group peers. In cost benefit analyses of the project through the years, economists have concluded that the Perry Preschool Project has yielded a return of over $7 for every initial dollar invested.
The Perry Program wasn't cheap. It provided excellent teachers, ample learning materials, small class sizes, and comprehensive services like health and dental care. In short, it supplied most of the things that higher income families take for granted.
Driven by the reality of our underfunded profession, most of us in the early childhood world have been indoctrinated with the belief that "a little goes a long way." But the research says the opposite. "You get what you pay for," is the maxim that appears to hold true for early childhood education. Investing in high quality brings high returns, not only in monetary, but also human value; socially and emotionally competent children who are well prepared to meet the challenges of school and life. Investing in bad or even mediocre programs yields at best, nothing and at worst, children who enter kindergarten behind, many of whom never catch up. Further, as the Perry Project demonstrates, we get the biggest bang for our buck by investing in the neediest kids.
So this fall, as the kids head back to school, let's consider the advice of the economists. Invest early and invest well. The returns are too good to pass up.
Susan Hoff is CEO of Child Care Group. The Community Early Education Summit convenes at noon Friday, Sept. 5 at the World Trade Center in Dallas.
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