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Intervene Earlier than PreK – NOW

March 29, 2014

The solution to improving the school performance and health for children raised in poverty is staring us right in the face… but our will to implement the solution is missing. Yesterday’s NYTimes reported on the findings of the the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in which about 100 infants from low-income families in North Carolina were followed from early infancy to their mid-30s. The longitudinal study began in 1972 and the results are astonishing. Among the findings cited in the Times article were that the group that received intensive care from infancy to age five:

  • Was far healthier
  • Had sharply lower rates of high blood pressure and obesity
  • Had higher levels of so-called good cholesterol
  • Were four times as likely to have graduated from college.
  • Had no instances of had metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a group of risk factors that together substantially raise the chances for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, among the men in the group.
  • Had less likely instances of pre-hypertension or abdominal obesity among women in the group
  • Had higher likelihood of physically activity and good nutrition among the women in the group

And what was the early intervention that took place in the study? “The children were given full-time day care up to age 5 that included most of their daily meals, talking, games and other stimulating activities.” 

And what was the cost of this program? “Professor Heckman (who conducted the study) said the cost of the Abecedarian project was about $16,000 per child per year in 2010 dollars.” For those working on spreadsheets at home, that is significantly less than the cost of a full-day school program like prekindergarten… and the research supporting this is harder to refute than the studies cited by educators who are advocating for early childhood programs.

If the basic kinds of day care provided to Abecedarian participants were augmented with the training described in a March 25 NYTimes article on the “Providence Talks” project it would be possible to provide the kind of wraparound services that make schools like Geoffrey Canada’s charters work effectively. There are several political issues that might preclude the adoption of these kinds of programs, though:

  • They fall outside the structure of “school” as we know it (i.e. they would not be subject to unionization the way a prekindergarten program affiliated with a public school system might be) 
  • They require government intervention as opposed to privately operated programs (i.e. for profit charters won’t be able to offer these programs the way they could conceivably offer prekindergarten)and we have all accepted Reagan’s premise that government is the problem.
  • They require interagency collaboration, which can lead to privacy concerns among parents and interagency squabbling over who controls the program.

These are all adult concerns… and because adults seem incapable of resolving them children raised in poverty will continue to be short-changed. Here’s hoping these recently reported research findings give everyone an opportunity to examine new solutions to persistent problems.

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