A how-to guide to create a high quality preschool program

Dec 5, 2012

Let's play the "what if" game for a second:

What if there was a program for kids in poverty that guaranteed at least a $7 return on investment for every $1 spent? What if that same program also improved graduation rates and significantly reduced crime rates?

Sound to go to be true? It’s not.

Those are just some of the long-term benefits associated with a study from the 1960s called the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.

About 120 African American children from Ypsilanti were enrolled in the project, all of whom lived in poverty. Half the children were enrolled in half-day preschool at Perry, the other half were not.

The two groups have been studied for more than 40 years and the children who attended Perry Preschool have pretty much outperformed the control group in every measurable category – from test scores and high school graduation rates all the way through to adulthood.

So what, exactly, does it take to produce those kinds of results?

HighScope Foundation president Larry Schweinhart says it’s not enough to simply open up a preschool and hope to get the same kind of positive long-term results. To ensure a high quality pre-K program, he says you must have these four main ingredients:

  1. Engaged Parents: In the original Perry study, teachers would go on weekly home visits to the children's homes and talk with the parents. Schweinhart says the "question is not whether you visit homes, the question is whether teachers and parents are in partnership with each other and achieving that through a lot of communication." He says that can be done in the classroom or at the home, as long as it's done.
  2. A Way to Evaluate Students: The Perry study involved a whole lot of data collection. In fact, they're STILL collecting data some 40 years later. (Schweinhart says they anticipate collecting new data in a couple years, now that the original cohort is in their 50s.) The purpose of evaluating both the program and childrens' progress is to give feedback to the teachers. "To let them know whether they're on track or not," says Schweinhart. "And from what we can tell that's just critical to a highly effective program. They have to know if they're on track."
  3. Active Learning: The Perry model requires children "to take initiative and responsibility for their own activities," explains Schweinhart. So instead of teacher-directed instruction, the children do something called "Plan Do Review," where the children work with the teacher to come up with a plan, they carry out the plan, and then they review what happened.
  4. Good Teachers: The teachers have to be qualified and know what they're doing. "You have to have teachers who know what they’re doing. That’s so obvious. You don’t hire a plumber who doesn’t know what he or she is doing," says Schweinhart. He says in-service training is key.

But here's the rub: It costs money to hire highly-trained teachers with a bachelor’s degree.

HighScope president Larry Schweinhart says the question for taxpayers is: pay now or pay later?

Many preschool programs pay their teachers less than half of what most K-12 public school teachers make. But Schweinhart says you pay for what you get; if you don’t hire qualified teachers, you can’t expect to see the same kind of results that Perry produced.

He says two-thirds of the cost of a high quality pre-K goes to pay teachers' salaries. That’s one of the main reasons the price tag for the High Scope Perry Preschool model is as high as it is - around $11,000 per child per year.

That’s more than three times the cost of the state funded pre-K, Great Start Readiness Program.

"You can do a cheaper program, but then you don’t get the return on investment," says Schweinhart.

When I asked if him if he realized that he was effectively asking people to help pay for a lot of other people's children to get into preschool, he simply nodded and said "if you don’t pay for them with early childhood education, you’re going to pay more for them because they’ll suck up services from the community and from the schools. They’re going to wind up being very costly because they’re going to be engaging in crime, and we wind up paying through the nose."

So he says the question for taxpayers is: pay now or pay later?