In 1986, Board of Education researchers began a long-term study of the academic progress of children from the district’s federally-funded child-parent centers.

So far, the findings support the view that preschool, in and of itself, is no magic bullet; quality education in the primary grades is just as important for raising the school achievement of disadvantaged youngsters.

Launched in 1965, child-parent centers (CPCs) are the cream of Chicago’s preschool crop. Located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, they feature smaller classes, teacher aides in every classroom, ongoing teacher training, a head teacher and mandatory parent involvement activities.

The first six CPCs offered two years of preschool and extended up through the 3rd grade. But in 1977, the Board of Education decided to use the money that had been spent on the primary grades to increase the number of CPCs to 25; all 25 offered only two years of preschool and one year of kindergarten. A year later, however, state funding allowed the board to extend 14 of the 25 CPCs up through 2nd grade, and another six through 3rd grade.

The board’s study, still ongoing, compares some 1,200 children who were in CPCs for varying lengths of time with some 190 children from nearby schools who did not attend CPCs. All the children completed kindergarten in 1986 and have now started high school.

The following measures were used to judge children’s achievement: reading and math scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, failure rates and special education placement. (At one point, the board also surveyed teachers regarding children’s social and emotional behavior and the level of parents’ involvement in their child’s education; the board was forced to discontinue the surveys several years ago due to lack of funds.)

By the 7th grade, children who attended a CPC through the 3rd grade had the highest math and reading scores, the lowest failure rates and the lowest special education placement.

“The longer the kids are in the program, the longer and stronger the benefit,” observes board researcher Nikolas Beruczko.

The key to the children’s success, maintains board researcher Jeanne Borger, are the features of CPCs, e.g., the ongoing staff development and smaller classes. “These are all the things you would expect [to impact achievement], but there’s empirical evidence of it,” says Borger.

Troubling declines

But in some cases, children who attended a CPC for less than six years—e.g., through only kindergarten or 1st grade—performed only slightly better, and in some cases slightly worse, than those in the non-CPC group.

For example, by the end of 5th grade, the failure rate for non-CPC children was 31.3 percent, compared to 15.3 percent for children who attended through 3rd grade. But for children in a CPC through kindergarten, the rate was 31.8 percent; for children in a CPC through 1st grade, it was 30.6 percent.

In reading, non-CPC children actually performed better than some shorter-term CPC children. Children who had attended a CPC through 1st grade had 5th-grade Iowa scores that were 7.3 points lower than long-term CPC children, while non-CPC children had scores that were 6.9 points lower.

There’s another discouraging aspect of the research: In general, scores of even the long-term CPC children declined over the years.

In 1st grade, for example, the scores of long-term children were significantly higher than both city and national norms, Beruczko points out; by the 5th grade, the scores remained above city norms but had fallen below national norms.

Asked why the scores declined, Beruczko says: “The cumulative effect of the Chicago public schools.”

A separate 1993 report by Loyola University researchers found similar declines. Their report examined the academic success of some 680 children in the first six CPCs and another 675 from nearby elementary schools. In the 2nd grade, most of the CPC children were scoring at or above national averages in reading, and far higher than both the city average and the average for children in the comparison group. By the 8th grade, however, scores of CPC children had slipped below national averages and, in some cases, below city averages; still, the scores remained better than those of the comparison group.

Good vs mediocre

To identify “best practice” teaching techniques and measure the impact of such techniques on student achievement, the board recently began another long-term study that examines how children fare in both “good” and “mediocre” kindergarten and 1st-grade classrooms.

The study compares researchers’ observations of teachers’ instruction techniques with three other kinds of data: teacher ratings of children’s skills and development, children’s writing samples, and 1st-grade Iowa scores.

In 1993, data were gathered for classrooms in some 30 schools and for about 600 students; in 1995, another set of data was collected for classrooms in about 200 schools and for 1,200 students. A report on the 1993 group is due out later this year; the data for 1995 have not yet been analyzed.

According to Borger, the initial findings show that children reap the most benefit when teachers:

Spend time talking with children, not at them.

Act as “coach,” not lecturer.

Divide children’s classroom time into a mix of group and individual activities.

Get children actively engaged in classwork.

The difference between children in “good” classrooms where such techniques were used, and children in “mediocre” classrooms where they were not, is “mind-boggling,” Borger says. “There’s almost a year’s worth of difference in [Iowa] scores” by the end of 1st grade.

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