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Mar 17, 2011 – 6:34 AM
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Christopher Paicely

A $10 million experiment in education and economics is going on in Chicago Heights.

The Griffin Early Childhood Center research project is in its first year of a two-year project, and the program is already receiving national attention. University of Chicago professor and world-renowned economist John List took a $10 million grant from billionaire Ken Griffin and created GECC, which Bloomberg News called "one of the largest field experiments ever conducted in economics."

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The core of this experiment is to see if putting money toward parents rather than just the children and teachers will lead to more well-rounded students.

"Our bottom line is we firmly believe there is an important interaction effect between students and parents and teachers," List said in a phone interview. "You can't just incentivize one. We have to put our efforts towards all three."

List said he initially came to the Heights after being approached by St. James Hospital orthopedic surgeon William Payne.

"He said we have real problems in Chicago Heights, and I think you can help us," List said. "We looked at a lot of causes, but all signs kept pointing to education."

List was joined by Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who wrote "Freakonomics," and Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who authored "Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials." The three previously worked on a program at Bloom and Bloom Trail High Schools that provided incentives to both students and their parents if the students maintained good grades.

The goal was to prove that incentives for both were more effective than rewarding just the students. There has been one noted problem with using high schoolers.

"We started out helping ninth-graders and that's been going on for 2-1/2 years," List said. "In a lot of cases, those ninth-graders are so far behind that it is hard to get them where they should be."

That's when List decided to work with preschool children, ages 3, 4 and 5. The new project takes Griffin's $10 million and puts it toward a study that will last two years but will allow the researchers to study these young children for the rest of their lives, according to List.

The study is broken into three groups: students attending a specialized preschool, parents who will take part in an incentive-based Parent Academy and a control group that will get neither.

The Kids

So what exactly is this expensive experiment? Part of it is a preschool. Not your average preschool, but a tuition-free, all-day school for kids ages 3 to 5, working in conjunction with Chicago Heights School District 170. There are two GECC preschools, and they operate out of Washington-McKinley School and Highland School.

These may be preschools, but the experience of the staff reveals that this is still very much a research project, said GECC Principal Maricela Ruiz.

"We have highly qualified staff who are certified in early childhood development," Ruiz said. "Many of them have their master's degree, and we are in a position to provide researchers with some concrete data as to what works with preschool children, what is the best way to teach preschoolers."

The Parents

While the preschool is a key component to the research, so is the GECC Parent Academy, which is a program that pays parents a stipend of up to $7,000 per year to go to biweekly workshops with their children and learn about parenting strategies and early childhood education.

"They actually learn to be the teachers of the children," said Parent Academy Director Sydnye Allen. "In much the same way I would teach a preschool classroom, they learn how to teach and instruct their children with these techniques that would be used in a preschool classroom."

Allen said parents are paid to participate in the workshops as another component of the research project.

"Parents are incentivized for participating because this research project is designed by economists who are studying the outcomes relative to costs," Allen said.

The students whose parents are in the Parent Academy do not attend the preschool. The two groups are kept separate for the research project.

The Control

As the school year nears its end, the research project will expand for next year. The current enrollment in Parent Academy is at around 120 families, but next year GECC hopes to have around 250 families.

That's why the center conducted a registration lottery Wednesday. But parents should not expect a space for their children in GECC just because they have registered.

"There's the preschool part, then there's the parent academy part, but it is on demand of how many spaces we have available," Assistant Principal Jennifer Gorton said. "So not everybody who completes a lottery application actually gets into our program."

This brings us to the third group, which is a control group to help List, Levitt and Fryer monitor the differences between kids who go to the preschool, kids whose parents went to the academy and families that did neither.

"With the preschool and the Parent Academy there is a control group," Gorton said, "and the control group does actually receive assessments from us and communications from us. There was a holiday event for those families; they're planning a spring event for those families. So we do actually want to stay connected to all the families that put in the registration documents to us."

The Umbrella

While the individual data is important in comparing methods, GECC is not necessarily looking at the preschool and Parent Academy as two separate studies, but rather an integrated system, according to Gorton.

"This is an umbrella program, because the preschool and the Parent Academy, we work together cohesively with each other," she said. "We're aware of parent communications within the preschool but then also within the Parent Academy."

So what's the ultimate goal for this big experiment? It's not as much about data and numbers as one would think, Principal Ruiz said.

"We're a staple in the community of Chicago Heights," Ruiz said. "So we can begin to develop some well-rounded citizens. That's our goal."

Gorton added, "The success of this program will be when families say, 'We participated in Griffin, and now I'm at Washington-McKinley School and I'm having a dynamite second-grade year with my child.'"

According to List, the project has already seen positive results.

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"The data so far shows, let's say, a remarkable success," List said. "The average kid in Chicago Heights started in the 33rd percentile, and now they are now at the 51st percentile. That means they started out behind the average kid in America when it comes to progress and have now surpassed the average kid in America."

List also said that while the study is only two years in length, he thinks the Griffin Early Childhood Center will continue.

"My guess is the program will continue in some shape or form after next year," List said. "It may be a mix of private and public funds, but I think it will go on."

To learn more about the Griffin Early Childhood Center, visit
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