School & District Management

Like Father, Like Son: Preschool Benefits Cross Generations, Says Landmark Study

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 14, 2019 6 min read
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The effects of the small, highly intensive Perry Preschool program continue to ripple out, not just for the original students but for their own children, too.

Students who attended the Ypsilanti, Mich., preschool between 1962 and 1967 are now in their mid-50s, and they continue to be healthier, more socially adept, and earn higher incomes than their peers who did not attend the program, according to two new studies released this morning. Moreover, University of Chicago researchers James Heckman and Ganesh Karapakula find the several hundred children born to those students—and particularly the boys—also grew up to have higher education and employment, and lower rates of displine in school or criminal behavior out of school.

“For the first time we have experimental evidence about how the case for early-childhood education propagates across generations,” Heckman said.

Those findings come as the federal government rolls out massive new funding for early-childhood education, from Head Start to home visits. And at a time of increasing academic focus in preschool, the new studies also highlight the importance of non-academic school connections to children’s longterm success.

Critical Family Supports

After controlling for the loss of some of the original 123 study members (mostly through death), the researchers’ most conservative analysis still found significant differences in outcomes between the children of Perry students and those of their peers:

This second generation did not participate in the Perry program, and attended preschools at about the same rates as their peers. Moreover, the families did not move to higher-income neighborhoods—in fact, Heckman said they were as likely to live in poorer neighborhoods than their counterparts who had not participated in the preschool, but both the first- and second-generation Perry alumni still had better outcomes than their peers.

Why? Heckman attributes some of these intergenerational benefits to building better social skills and executive function in the preschool students. Men who participated in the preschool as young children had lower crime rates and higher rates of stable marriage. That made a big difference during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the War on Drugs led to mass incarceration of black fathers. Children of Perry alumni were three times more likely have been raised by two stable married parents than their peers—and boys whose fathers attended Perry were 15 times more likely to have had both their married father and mother raising them than boys in the control group.

That “translates into an environment for their children which, in many ways, is more healthy than is the case for other families where the father may go to prison, a single parent mother may be working, facing high child-care costs. ...,” Heckman said. “This led to improved environments for the children of the original participants and the children themselves.”

Beyond IQ

The Perry project launched three years before the advent of Head Start, and the beginning of the fierce and ongoing debate into whether early education could help put children in poverty on a more even academic playing field with their wealthier peers. The 3- and 4-year-olds randomly tapped for the program were all poor (most living in nearby subsidized housing projects), black, and considered to have low IQ. The participating children were assigned to an intensive combination of center-based preschool and home visits, with the goal of finding out whether early-childhood education could boost their IQ.

In that, the project failed; follow-up studies from the HighScope research group and the ones Heckman released today found no sustained gain in the IQ measure. But as the Nobel Award-winning economist Heckman, a co-author of the studies, noted, the “simplistic measures of cognitive achievement prove to be poor indicators of success,” and tracking the participants for more than a half-century has allowed “sleeper benefits” like lower crime rates and higher incomes to come to light.

Yet Heckman also cautioned that the results of Perry’s high-intensity preschool model don’t translate to most programs. “The evidence from this study and from other studies like it show that targeting disadvantaged children and families is a very effective strategy,” he said. “There is no evidence whatsoever in this paper about universal pre-K, and many people have distorted what the studies (of Perry Preschool) have actually been saying.”

In an interview last year, W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University, told Education Week that states interested in promoting early-childhood education often “don’t really understand the intensity, duration, and quality that’s necessary to produce the promised results. They go from Perry Preschool and Abecedarian or even Chicago Child-Parent Centers to programs that don’t look anything like those and aren’t supported.”

For example, a separate team of researchers found similarly strong and long-lasting—but negative—effects on boys in a recent longitudinal study of children in the Canadian province of Quebec who participated in universal access to preschool in the late 1990s. Economists who have tracked the students over time found that those who started preschool through the program had higher parent-reported rates of aggression and illness compared to peers; and as teenagers, those students showed no better academic performance, but worse health, and higher crime rates than their peers who did not participate. A separate study of a universal-preschool program in Tennessee sparked a heated exchange between Heckman and other researchers when participating students showed worse outcomes than their peers.

Deeper ‘Partnerships’

When the Perry project started, Louise Derman-Sparks, today a professor emeritus at Pacific Oaks College, was a young teacher in her 20s, and she argued that while the official focus of the project was to teach low-income parents to have more middle-class parenting approaches, most of the original teachers focused on connecting and welcoming parents in weekly home visits over the course of each year.

“When Perry Preschool existed, it was very early days in many ways in terms of understanding what it meant to work with kids who were living in poverty,” Derman-Sparks said. “Now, it’s very hard to know ... would we have had the same outcomes that the research has found if we didn’t have home visiting?”

She noted that the parents of Perry students lived in poverty and many had had bad experiences in school themselves and for the students’ older siblings.

“I don’t think they had very many hopes of what the education system could do for them, even though they did see education as mattering,” she said. “I think that the fact that we came every week to work with the child and with them said that we thought the kids were important. ... It may partly account for the positive results that the families were strengthened—not necessarily because we did puzzles or taught kids colors—but that we came, that we treated them as partners, that we felt their kids were really important, really intelligent, and that there were things they could do to negotiate their children’s experience at school.”

While preschool programs have had better and worse ability to repeat Perry Preschool’s model, the need to build a partnership with parents has long since become part of the canon of preschool education.

Photo: Louise Derman-Sparks, one of the original Perry Preschool teachers. Source: Louise Derman-Sparks

Chart Source: James Heckman


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.