Now in their mid-50s, participants in the original Perry Preschool Project have provided more stable home lives for their children — especially boys — than those who weren’t part of the Ypsilanti, Michigan, demonstration program in the 1960s.
Their children were significantly more likely than those in the comparison group to complete high school without being suspended, to never be addicted or arrested, and to have full-time jobs or be self-employed, according to a new intergenerational analysis from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago.
His new research also finds significant, positive “spillover treatment effects” for the siblings of the original participants who were already in the home when the program began. In a call with reporters on Monday, Heckman attributed the impact on siblings to the weekly home-visiting component of the Perry model.
“It’s exciting, it's new and we think it’s important for public policy,” he said, adding that “enhanced parent-child interaction” seemed to be the "ingredient" in the program that made the most difference, and that is relevant for educators and leaders currently designing and running early-childhood interventions for children from low-income families.
Because men in the sample were less likely to be arrested or go to prison, they were able to stay involved in their children’s lives, Heckman said. “More stable marriage translates into an environment for their children that in many ways is more healthy,” he said.
Similar outcomes, however, are unlikely to result from universal pre-K initiatives that open enrollment to all children, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature program and the proposal announced Monday by Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro.
“Targeting disadvantaged children is a very effective strategy,” Heckman said, describing universal models as “political objectives” and adding that children from homes with greater resources have “substantial benefits already.”
The findings, he said, also present a counterargument to the discussion over whether the zip code in which a child grows up determines his or her life trajectory. The positive outcomes were realized even though most of the families continued to live in similar or even worse neighborhoods than children in the control group. “This is not a consequence of people changing zip code,” Heckman said.
And the results have implications for growing efforts to expand home-visiting programs to low-income families and others at risk of child maltreatment or neglect. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2019-20 budget includes $89.6 million in federal and state funds to expand home-visiting programs for families in the state’s public assistance program.
Developing ‘character skills’
The Perry Preschool Project was designed by David Weikart, a psychologist, in partnership with Perry Elementary School Principal Charles Eugene Beatty. Weikart led the longitudinal study in his role as founder of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, and Heckman became involved in the ongoing study about 10 years ago.
The results have often been criticized as not generalizable to the broader population because of the small size of the original sample — 123 African-American preschoolers with below-average intelligence. Regarding those criticisms, Heckman noted that his research methods account for a small sample and result in very conservative or “worst case” estimates of the effects.
Fifty-eight of the children were assigned to the treatment group and the rest were part of the control group. Because of attrition — including death — about 85% of the sample was involved in the latest round of interviews.
Heckman has advanced the argument that society reaps the greatest gains from high-quality early-childhood programs for at-risk children when those interventions begin at birth — “13% for every dollar invested in children who could otherwise not attend a high-quality program,” according to a summary of the results.
He also joins a growing number of researchers saying the real benefits of early learning programs are realized in long-term “life course” outcomes, such as employment and health — not necessarily in whether students who went to preschool are outscoring their peers in 2nd grade.
His earlier research on the sample concludes that while participants did not show long-term gains in IQ, they did develop “character skills.” Compared to the control group, participants had less “aggressive, antisocial and rule-breaking behaviors,” which ultimately led to less criminal activity and, therefore, reduced costs to the justice system, and more income for the families.
Looking across generations
As more years pass and the participants of '60s-era early intervention programs raise their own families, researchers are able to examine outcomes within the second generation. In 2017, researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Notre Dame published a study showing that the children of former participants in the federally funded Head Start program were less likely to become teen parents, commit crimes and earn more education.
“These results imply that cost-benefit analyses of Head Start and similar early-childhood interventions underestimate the benefits of such programs by ignoring the transmission of positive effects across generations,” they wrote. “This finding has important policy implications for optimal investment in these types of programs. Each disadvantaged child society helps now will lead to fewer who require assistance in the future.”
Another example of lasting benefits comes from the ongoing evaluation of the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Child-Parent Centers program by University of Minnesota’s Arthur Reynolds. Because CPS administers the program and it’s not a small research project, CPC has often been highlighted as a more real-world example of the potential of a comprehensive, multiyear intervention. The program, which still exists, includes education, health and nutrition services, and family components such as required parent involvement, workshops and home visits.
At age 35, those in a sample of 1,398 were 48% more likely to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree if they participated in at least four years of the program than those who participated less.
Short-term outcomes also important
But the expanding evidence on long-term outcomes doesn’t mean early-childhood leaders and policymakers shouldn’t focus on the quality of today’s programs, suggests Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“I think it's important to consider both short-term and long-term outcomes for children,” she wrote in an email. “We know that high-quality pre-K programs are preparing children for kindergarten.”
As with CPC and Perry Preschool, interventions that have shown the strongest results also have “components beyond the classroom,” Bornfreund said. “Connecting with families and supporting families in their children's learning seems to matter.
Running from 1962 through 1967, the Perry Preschool model included a half-day session for 3- and 4-year-olds, low teacher-child ratios and certified teachers with a bachelor’s degree. The curriculum emphasized active learning and reflection with children constructing projects and reviewing their classmates’ work.
Bornfreund and other early-childhood education experts are also increasingly urging schools to build on what children have learned in child care and preschool.
“In many places, children do not have strong and appropriate instruction or learning environments in those early grades,” she said. “There's a lot of work for districts and schools to do there.”
Heckman noted that while a preschool teacher with an advanced degree likely contributes to greater vocabulary and literacy outcomes, having classrooms that “activate” a child’s curiosity and extend the interaction at home seem to be producing the greatest long-term effects.
He added that the findings also contribute to the growing interest in using more than just academic test scores to measure a student’s success. “A large body of research in social science,” he said, “shows that the social-emotional skills are as important, if not more important.”