Early Education

Sending your boy to preschool is great for your grandson, new research shows

Children of parents who attended a high-quality preschool program in the 1960s were better educated, healthier, better employed and more likely to stay stably married, especially if they were boys born to preschool-educated fathers.

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.

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the Membership Manager and West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first… See Archive

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I wanted to comment about the preschool article. I think one point that is missing in its development but touted "Successful pre-schools do what successful parents do." I believe it's more than pre-school. It would be nice to see data regarding the demographics and character traits of the parents who sent their kids to pre-schools. Those that value education and the positive traits reinforced in pre-school might have kids that turn out with the identical stats even if they didn't send kids to pre-school. Hard to do a blind study on this one. Those parents that don't value education or those traits are less likely to send kids to pre-school. I am not saying that pre-school doesn't help, but the above concept would have to be researched. (btw-I have a blended family of 5 kids; not all went to pre-school, but 4 of them fall into the positive category and the 1 that was suspended has done fine otherwise.)

- from Gregg Sadler, May 14, 2019

There are two interventions going on here, the first is pre-school and the second is educating the parents. Perhaps the positive results were from educating the parents.

“Indeed, studies show that parents who are knowledgeable about child development are better prepared to support their children’s development. On the other hand, parents with little knowledge are more likely to engage in negative parenting behaviors (e.g., abuse and neglect) that can have harmful long‐term effects on their children’s well-being”

https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/FGReportOnParentKnowledge_ChildTrends-.pdf

I question the validity of the conclusions of this piece.

My research is at Solving Minnesota's Achievement Gap (http://solvingmnag.com/)

- from Terry Frawley, May 16, 2019

I really enjoyed the article "Sending your boy to preschool is great for your grandson, new research shows," by Lillian Mongeau. This was great coverage of the new research out on this long-running data set and its implications. I just wanted to comment that the title is gendered when it does not seem to need to be. "Sending your child to preschool is great for your grandchild" would have felt more universal.

- from Claire Jarvis, May 28, 2019

There are actually two types of intervention happening in this study. The first being pre-school and the second is parental education. The only thing this report should conclude is that intervention works. The success of the second gen children could have been more from parental education rather than pre-school.

- from Terry Frawley, Jun 13, 2019