High-quality preschool programs not only benefit children, they also eventually can save taxpayers four times the cost of the programs - better than the average rate of return on most private investments.
These are among the preliminary findings of a just-completed study tracing the educational progress of young people through age 19 from low-income families in Ypsilanti, Mich. The report indicates that society saves $4 in unemployment compensation, special education programs, delinquency treatment, and other costs for every $1 spent on quality preschool programs.
The survey, done by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, found that those children who participated in a private preschool education program had a lower high school dropout rate, a much higher employment rate, and a much lower arrest rate than those without the preschool training. Although the 11 -year old Ypsilanti preschool program studied is private, it was the model for many Head Start (federally funded) preschool projects around the United States.
The Ypsilanti report comes just as other research is showing ''clear evidence of long-term effects'' on children participating in preschool programs such as Head Start and others, says Ray Collins of the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families.
Dr. Collins says the Ypsilanti program is ''probably the best-designed research project and most carefully followed over time'' of any preschool facility in the US. The cost-benefit data from Michigan are ''sound,'' he says.
On cost and benefits, the Ypsilanti research is ''really the best,'' says Prof. Irving Lazar of Cornell University, who has studied many preschool programs.
The findings are ''tremendously'' important, says Lynn Kagan, assistant professor of education at Yale University.
Previous studies have focused mostly on the benefits to the children, Professor Collins says. Some studies have projected the savings to society, he says, but the new research is based on actual cases. He says the findings should add to what he sees as a growing national awareness of the importance of preschool programs.
Less than 20 percent of the children from poverty-level families are now in Head Start programs, he said. In addition, there are some high-quality, private day-care programs, but most do not offer the same benefits as the Ypsilanti or Head Start programs, he added.
The key to quality preschool programs is ''a way of thinking,'' says David P. Weikart, president of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. He started the Perry preschool program, which is the subject of the latest research.
One of the benefits of quality preschool programs is to help children develop ''a willingness to try things'' and help adults ''see them (the children) as competent kids,'' Mr. Weikart says.
The study follows 123 children who were from low-income families, comparing those who did not go into the preschool program with those who did for one year at age four or two years at ages three and four. The differences in results between the two groups was ''so strong'' that the findings, which are subject to some adjustment, are important in spite of the small number of students involved , says W. Steven Barnett, who did the cost-benefit research on the project.
Ypsilanti preschool study
Youths who Youths who did not attended preschool attend preschool
Delinquency (arrested by age 19) 22% 43% Jobs by age 19 48 29 Self-supporting (including spouse's earnings) 45 24 High school dropouts 35 55 College or post-high school job training 38 21 Years of special education required 2.1 3.6 Source: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation