The benefits of quality preschool for poor kids may extend to their children

Perry Preschool was a crucial part of building the economic case for investing in little kids. Fresh evidence points to its long-term and inter-generational impact too.
Perry Preschool was a crucial part of building the economic case for investing in little kids. Fresh evidence points to its long-term and inter-generational impact too.
Image: Toru Hanai / Reuters
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On average, one in five American kids live in households that qualify as poor by federal government standards.

Those children have significantly worse life outcomes than their peers, because poverty can interfere with their ability to learn, and lead to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. But a new study underscores how early intervention can significantly change the trajectory of those at-risk children—and potentially even help their own children later on.

Fifty years ago, researchers designed an experiment for 123 three to four-year-old at-risk children in Michigan. 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. It was considered so successful that, along with similar projects in the US and Jamaica, it built the scientific case worldwide for investing in children’s education before age five.

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. Because most of the children were older than 18 in this survey, the researchers were able to collect data on their adult outcomes, which previous Perry surveys were not able to do.

The researchers found that the children of Perry Preschool kids were 30% more likely to be employed with a high school diploma than their peers. 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 strongest effects were measured on the male children of male Perry Preschool participants, who were much more likely to be healthy, employed, and to have graduated from college.

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.

Heckman and others have used the success of Perry Preschool to build the case for investing in early childhood interventions. But some researchers don’t agree on the study’s generalizability. 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 hundreds 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.

“This suggests that family life is more important than neighborhoods in producing better outcomes,” they write. 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.