Extrapolating from One Program...

Making extrapolations from the Perry Preschool Project to a nationwide ECD program raises several questions. Do results from a program that operated in a small-town setting carry over to large urban, often inner-city environments where many poor children live today? Have the problems faced by poor children changed so much since the Perry Preschool Project operated in the 1960s that it is unlikely that the success of that program can be replicated? Have the dramatic changes in the U.S. welfare system that have taken place over the past decade reduced the welfare savings that could be generated by an ECD program like the Perry Preschool Project? Does the fact that the Perry Preschool Project had the highest benefit-cost ratio of all the ECD programs analyzed imply that the results for that project may overstate the net benefits of a nationwide ECD program? Finally, how confident can one be that the benefits found for the Perry Preschool Project, which was a relatively small pilot program, would apply when replicating the program, or a similar high-quality program, on a large, nationwide scale?

I believe that the results for the Perry Preschool Project would apply to a large-scale, nationwide ECD program today. The results for the Perry Preschool Project—the life outcomes of its young students—are similar to those of the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. The Chicago Child-Parent Center program is not a small-scale pilot program: It serves about 5,000 children annually and has served over 100,000 children to date (Reynolds et al., 2001). The Chicago program operates in a large urban, inner-city environment. The program started in 1967 but continues to serve thousands of children annually, with all their modern-day problems. If we could measure all of the benefits of each program, there is a good chance that we would find that the Chicago programs' net benefits actually exceed those of the Perry Preschool Project.

In fact, if we look strictly at the effect on government budgets (and not the broader positive effects on the economy and crime), the net benefits of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (and of the Prenatal/Early Infancy program) are even higher than they are for the Perry Preschool Project.1 Likewise, in terms of economic impacts alone, the net benefits of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers exceed those for the Perry Preschool Project. The total benefits of the Chicago program are underestimated relative to the Perry Preschool Project because none of the Chicago program researchers has ever measured the substantial savings that derive from reductions in the intangible losses due to crime.

It is not clear whether the dramatic changes in the welfare system would likely result in lower savings to government today than would have been generated decades ago by ECD investments. But even if the changes in the welfare system did mean that there would be relatively less government savings from reduced welfare usage, the results of this extrapolation would not change substantially; for the Perry Preschool Project the savings to government from reductions in welfare usage amounted to only about 9 percent of the total savings to government and less than 3 percent of the total benefits of the program.

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The ultimate benefit-cost ratio for a large-scale, nationwide ECD program enrolling roughly 1.6 million children a year could turn out to be higher or lower than in smaller pilot programs. A large program would have the potential not possible in small programs to improve the school atmosphere for everyone, not just ECD participants. Raising academic performance while reducing disruptive classroom behaviors and drug or criminal activity of 20 percent of children and teenagers should benefit the other 80 percent of students who attend school with them. In addition, there may be some multiplier effects on the economy from the higher-skilled, more productive, and higher-earning ECD participants.2 On the other hand, a larger scale ECD program might draw in more kids who are less at risk than those in the pilot programs. Such kids might (or might not) have lower benefit-cost ratios than those in the pilot programs—experts are divided on this issue. Likewise, the quality of teachers and other staff may not be as good, or the teachers and staff may not be as highly motivated, as those in the pilot programs. But all told, the research on high-quality ECD clearly indicates that even on a national scale the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs.

Robert G. Lynch is associated professor and chairman of the department of economics at Washington College. His most recent book is Rethinking Growth Strategies—How State and Local Taxes and Services Affect Economic Development.


1. It should be noted that the government savings from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program are understated relative to those of the Perry Preschool program because they do not include the government savings from reduced adult welfare usage on the part of the Chicago program participants.

2. It is important to note that this study's estimates of the benefits of the nationwide ECD program do not take into consideration the positive feedback effects on future generations of children and therefore the possible savings in the future costs of the ECD investment. The program invests in the parents of the future who, as a consequence of the ECD investment, will be able to provide better educational opportunities to their children than they would without the ECD program. As a result, it may not be necessary to spend as much on ECD in the future to achieve the same educational, crime, and income effects on the children of the next generation as is estimated here. Alternatively, not scaling back the future level of ECD investment may result in greater benefits than estimated in this study once the generational effects are taken into account.

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Extrapolating from One Program...

American Educator, Winter 2004-2005