Half the kids received a high-quality preschool education and home visits designed for the experiment, while the other half didn’t. This intervention, called the Highscope/Perry Project, or Perry Preschool for short, demonstrated the high returns of preschool in terms of learning and socio-emotional outcomes.
The oft-studied program also appears to have had a dramatic, long-term impact.
By age 40, children who received the preschool education were more likely than those who didn’t to have graduated from high school, to hold a job, to own their own home and car and to make more money, among other outcomes.
In a set of studies published this week (May 14), early childhood economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman and co-author Ganesh Karapakula of the University of Chicago found that the beneficial effects of the Perry Preschool Project extended to participants’ children as well, with “fewer school suspensions, higher levels of education and employment, and lower levels of participation in crime, compared with the children of untreated participants.
After completing the Perry Preschool Program in 1967, participants continued to fill out surveys, providing a rich trove of data on the intervention’s long-term effects. For the purposes of this study, authors collected responses from a survey that participants filled out about their children, who ranged in age from one to 43 years old, in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
They were also 30% less likely than their peers to have been suspended from school. This is especially relevant, write the authors, because black students make up a disproportionate number of suspended students in American public schools.
The data had some limitations.
First, while the original program participants were randomized into a control and a treatment group, their children were not, which could bias the results. To remedy this, the researchers designed what they call a “non-experimental method” that looked at the least favorable adjusted outcome based on the randomization of the original sample.
Another limitation was that the survey data collected on the children of the original participants were “not nearly as rich as the data on the original participants,” who were tested for every imaginable outcome. But the researchers were still able to measure important life outcomes in those children, like indicators of educational attainment and health, and behavioral issues.
They say Perry Preschool was a small, expensive, and high-quality intervention that would be impossible to scale at the level required to improve outcomes for hundr of thousands of kids. They also argue that the fact that the intervention worked for a small number of kids in the 1960s doesn’t necessarily make it relevant to today’s context.
Heckman disagrees with this argument. “Are human beings different in the 1960s than in the 2010s? I don’t think so,” he says.
“I think the ingredients of what makes those successful programs … are pretty universal, pretty internal.” He also notes that elements of the Perry Preschool Program curriculum are similar to the early learning frameworks used in US government-run poverty-based programs (pdf) today.
Heckman and Karapakula believe the intervention’s strong intergenerational effects are partly attributable to the fact that many of the children of Perry Preschool participants grew up in stable families, despite the fact that most of them lived in poor neighborhoods equal or worse to those of the children of nonparticipants.
And that, says Heckman, is consistent with his research showing the most important effect of any successful early childhood intervention is its impact on the parent–child relationship. “It seems like the universal ingredient is enhanced parent–child interaction,” he says, and “stimulation that stays on in the home and continues throughout the child’s life.
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.