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Enriching education throughout childhood pays big dividends for disadvanted

Additional programs build on impact of preschool

While studies have shown that disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality preschool programs, they would benefit even more if they had additional tutoring and mentoring during their elementary and high school years, according to research at the University of Chicago.

Researchers have previously noted that many of the advantages children receive from preschool experiences begin to wane as they continue through school. A study by James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago and an expert on early childhood education, now shows for the first time that systematic interventions throughout childhood and adolescence could sustain the early gains and build on them.

"Childhood is a multistage process where early investments feed into later investments. Skill begets skill; learning begets learning," wrote Heckman in the paper, "Investing in our Young People." Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, co-wrote the paper with Flavio Cunha, a graduate student in economics at the University of Chicago. The study is being released in Washington, D.C. November 15 as part of a larger report by America's Promise Alliance's titled Every Child, Every Promise: Turning Failure into Action.

The scholars studied data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth to estimate a model that would describe how different inputs contribute to the accumulation of abilities. They used the model to predict the outcomes of children born to disadvantaged mothers when the children received a variety of extra learning assistance. In particular, they simulated the potential outcome of continued high-quality interventions beyond preschool.

Because programs for young people now focus on one period in a child's life, such as preschool, or high-school, little research has been done studying a group of students receiving continued interventions systematically.

Heckman and Cunha's computer simulation showed that the sustained investments in disadvantaged children would have dramatic results. The attention would improve the children's school performance as well as their social skills. The children who perform better in school, would likely complete more education and not become involved in crime or dependent upon welfare. With no early childhood investments, only 41 percent of the students would finish high school and more than 22 percent would be convicted of crime or on probation. Just 4.5 percent would enroll in college. The study also showed:

- With early childhood intervention, high school graduation rates would increase to 65 percent and college enrollment to 12 percent. Participation in crime would decrease.

- With skill-building investments in high school, graduation rates also would be 65 percent, while convictions and probation for crime would fall dramatically.

- Combining early childhood intervention with high school intervention would increase high-school graduation rates to 84 percent and college participation rates to 27 percent.

- Disadvantaged children who received balanced additional attention throughout childhood would fare even better. More than 90 percent of those students would graduate from high school and 37 percent would attend college, while conviction and probation rates would fall to 2.6 percent. The additional investments throughout childhood could include extra enrichment and tutoring in school as well as opportunities provided by parents and institutions other than schools.

Other research has shown dramatic economic advantages for society when more students complete high school and attend college. The costs to society decrease becaise fewer people would be involved in crime. Among African Americns, 30 percent of men who did not graduate from high school are in prison, studies have shown. Crime costs Americans more than $600 billion per year.

Heckman and Cunha's work shows that the benefits of increased investments in young people come from improving both cognitive and noncognitive skills. Although preschool can have an impact on improving cognitive skills, interventions later on can improve noncognitive skills such as perseverance and self-control, they wrote.

Paying attention to the skills gap is vital to the future economic success of the country, Heckman said. College attendance rates have stalled, and the percentage of students completing a conventional four-year high school program is decreasing. "Currently 17 percent of all new high school credentials or GEDs are issued to people who earn about as much as high school dropouts.

"The growth in the quality of the workforce, which was a mainstay of economic growth until recently, has diminished," Heckman said. This trend must change or America's economy will be undermined, he said.

William Harms | EurekAlert!
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