That is the question Reynolds, Temple, Ou, Arteaga, & White sought to answer in their comprehensive 2011 study of the Child Parent Center (CPC), an early childhood-based intervention program in the heart of Chicago’s high poverty neighborhood. As the second oldest pre-K program (after Head Start), CPC emphasizes “basic skills in language arts and math through relatively structured but diverse learning experiences that include whole-class instruction, small-group and individualized activities, and frequent field trips.” They also offer comprehensive services for parents, including a parent involvement component, outreach services, and attention to health and nutrition.
Researchers measured the “well-being” of the 28-year old participants under four categories: 1) educational attainment; 2) socioeconomic status (SES); 3) health status; and 4) crime and justice-system involvement. Here are their significant findings:
- Educational attainment: The pre-school group who attended CPC had higher levels of attainment in 1) total grades completed, 2) high school completion, and 3) on-time high school graduation compared with the control group. There was no significant differences in terms of attaining college degrees.
- SES: The preschool group who attended CPC had higher average annual income ($11,582 vs. $10, 796, in 2007 dollars) and higher SES index. No difference was found in the rate of food stamp participation.
- Health: The CPC preschoolers had higher rates of insurance coverage (76%) than those who were not in the program (64%). Substance abuse was also significantly lower (14% vs. 19%).
- Crime: CPC participants had lower rates of overall arrests (48% vs 54%), and in particular, felony arrests (19% vs. 25%). They also had lower incarceration/jail history (15% vs. 21%). There was no difference in terms of convictions.
Another noteworthy finding was that male participants appeared to have the largest gains from the CPC preschool program.
Unlike some previous studies of promising early childhood intervention programs, such as the renowned Perry Preschool Project, the CPC study was a large-scale effectiveness trial with over 1,500 students, which makes its results more translatable to a larger population. These students (and schools) were also randomly selected, theoretically making its results more representative of a real population and therefore more generalizable. In fact, 15% of the control group actually participated in their own intervention services, which reflects real world differences and increases the impact of CPC above and beyond other available early childhood services. Finally, no other long-term study has examined the effects of an early childhood program on adults over the age of 25.
The promising results of this study also provides perspective on some of the general criticisms of early childhood intervention programs like Head Start. Critics have pointed to the mixed results of the 2010 Head Start Impact Study, which found that the advantages that children gained during their Head Start years disappeared after the first grade. However, the results from this CPC study suggest that any benefits accrued from these programs may in fact be imperceptible in the short term and can only be realized decades later–in the form of a higher quality of life.
What is worth investing in more–reforms aimed at short-term yearly progress in math scores or those focused on long-term benefits like better health, higher income, and lower incarceration rates?