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Nearly 60 years ago, a handful of 3- and 4-year-old black children living in a small city outside of Detroit attended a preschool program known as the Perry Preschool Project. The children were part of an experiment to see if a high-quality educational experience in a child’s early years could raise IQ scores.
Kids’ IQ scores went up initially, but soon evened out with those of their peers. The same thing has happened more recently with the standardized test scores of children who attend preschool: They got a boost in kindergarten and then saw that boost fade as they grew older.
But the Perry research didn’t stop when the initial academic benefit seemed to dissipate, nor was IQ the only thing the researchers tracked. Led for the last decade by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, the Perry researchers have also looked at school success in terms of persistence to graduation, work success in terms of job retention and life success in terms of physical health and healthy relationships. Perry Preschool children did better on all of these measures than a randomly selected group of their peers who did not attend the preschool.
The latest results from this long-running study, released on May 14, 2019, indicate that the children of the now 50- to 55-year old Perry participants reaped the same benefits.
While they didn’t grow up in safer or richer neighborhoods than their parents, 67 percent of the adult children of Perry participants completed high school without a suspension, compared to just 40 percent of the children of non-participants. Sixty percent have never been suspended, addicted or arrested, compared to 40 percent of the children of non-participants. And 59 percent were employed full-time or self-employed, compared to 42 percent of the children of non-participants.
This latest finding “proves that these early life improvements can carry on to second generations,” Heckman said. “We’ve shown that improving the family lives of these children does make a difference.”
The Perry Preschool program was small, serving just about 60 children and tracking another 60 from the same neighborhood and with the same initial IQ scores as a comparison group. Such a trial would likely not be possible today since the benefit of preschool has been shown clearly enough that it would be considered unethical to offer it to some and not others.
Its small size and the fact that the program took place in the mid-1960s make some academics and policymakers skeptical that the Perry findings are relevant today. These new findings are interesting in part because there are far more children of participants than there were original participants. Heckman said there were several hundred “kids” of Perry participants and their nonparticipant peers accounted for in the study, 95 percent of whom were 18 or older. Less is known about the second generation than about the first, but researchers argue that the data they have is significant enough to show a clear positive effect. And, of course, the second-generation findings wouldn’t be possible had they not tracked original participants long enough for them to reach “late middle age,” as the researchers termed it.
One of the clearest findings in the latest study was that preschool helped boys and their sons to persist in school and relationships, to stay gainfully employed and to avoid criminal activity and incarceration.
All children of Perry participants benefitted from their parents’ tendency to remain in stable marriages, for example, which increased the adult resources and attention available to them. Kids of Perry participants spent three times as much of their childhoods with married parents than the children of non-participants. This was true even though even though participants and non-participants had about the same number of children.
But boys born to fathers who attended Perry benefitted the most. Among those older than 18, boys of Perry participants spent 15 times more of their childhood with stable married parents than the children of non-participants. These boys also did better on the other life outcome measures included in the study.
Separate research has shown that boys are particularly sensitive to their early childhood environments, so finding an intervention that could affect not just current boys, but also their future sons could make a big difference to society by giving men the emotional skills needed to navigate successful adult relationships and refrain from committing crimes.
Heckman said that the success of the Perry program was based largely on its ability to “activate the spark” of learning in the children and to engage parents through a home visiting component. Pressed for more details about what a quality preschool program might look like, Heckman demurred, saying many models have been shown to work well.
The one consistent finding he’s seen, he said, is that “successful preschools do exactly what successful parents do.” They find where the kids are at, take them to the next step, allow them to make mistakes and engage them in a learning experience every day, Heckman said.
This story about Perry Preschool Project was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.