More than 25 years later, people who as kids attended a special five-days-a-week preschool program in inner-city Chicago are better off than those who didn't. They have higher incomes and lower rates of criminal incarceration and substance abuse.
"The research indicates that there are long-term effects on well-being," said Arthur Reynolds of the University of Minnesota, a researcher in the study of the program, which has been running in Chicago public schools since 1967. "The educational benefits we have found in previous studies carry over not only into economic well being but also to health-care coverage and reduced criminal activity."
The study is the longest-running of a large-scale public early-education program. It followed a group of 1,000 inner-city students from their preschool years through age 28 and compared the outcomes with those of 500 low-income students who didn't attend preschool but were similar to the preschoolers in most other ways, including their low socioeconomic status. Most of the attendees, 93 percent, were African-American.
Detailed online today (June 9) by the journal Science, the results may reflect the increased family involvement encouraged by the program, called Child-Parent Center Education Program, said Reynolds, a child-development professor.
The biggest benefit was seen in males, and particularly those whose parents hadn't finished high school. They showed a greater drop in rates of criminal incarceration and substance abuse as well as higher increases in health-insurance coverage, income and educational attainment than did the sons of more-educated parents. There was about a 25 percent increase in the rate of high school completion and about a 25 percent decrease in felony arrests for the males, Reynolds said.
"The program has heavy emphasis on family services; those really strengthen and get parents engaged in their children's education," Reynolds told LiveScience. "Kids are much more able to do well in school and in life if they have that kind of family support."
Previous studies did not show strong, long-lasting benefits of many early-education programs, such as preschools and Head Start, but many of the programs weren't followed up in the long term, Reynolds said. In addition, he said, the programs vary so much that comparisons can be difficult.
The Child-Parent Center Education Program, in which well-educated and well-paid teachers instruct students for either a half or full day each weekday, is offered free to kids in low-income families through governmental "no child left behind" funding.
"This provides a model for expansion, not only in Chicago and other regions but any school," Reynolds said. "More than 40 states now have pre-K finance programs."
Some interesting things the researchers didn't find among the students were differences in family life, the timing and number of children in the families, and the amount of public aid the students received.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.