Research Updates Lives of Perry Preschoolers

By Linda Jacobson — November 23, 2004 6 min read
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How are the Perry Preschool children doing now that they’ve crossed into middle age? Pretty well, apparently.

View “The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40" and an executive summary of “The Effects of Oklahoma’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program on School Readiness.” ()

The latest findings from one of the longest-running studies on the effects of preschool, released last week, show that the children who attended the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., four decades ago continue to be more law-abiding, earn higher incomes, and have more stable home lives than similar adults who were not enrolled in the program as youngsters.

At age 40, those who attended the small demonstration program in the 1960s were found to have higher rates of employment and homeownership, and lower rates of illicit drug use and arrests for selling illegal drugs, when compared with the sample of adults who did not attend the classes.

The study “confirms that the long-term effects are lifetime effects,” writes study author Lawrence J. Schweinhart, the president of the Ypsilanti-based High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. The foundation was established in 1970 by David P. Weikart, the original investigator, who died last year.

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Chart: Preschool Follow-Up

More than ever, the results give researchers and early-childhood-education advocates reason to argue that effective preschool programs with well-trained teachers can make the difference in whether children grow up to become fully contributing members of society or a relative drain on public services.

But while promising results were also released last week from researchers studying a statewide prekindergarten program in Oklahoma, Mr. Schweinhart, who joined the Perry project in 1975, said in an interview that few programs running today can match the quality of the Perry Preschool.

“Anybody’s got the potential to run a good program,” he said. “But to get what we got, you’ve got to do what we did.”

Good Citizens

Launched in 1962 by Mr. Weikart, an early-childhood expert, the longitudinal study involved 123 Ypsilanti preschoolers who were randomly assigned to “treatment” and control groups. The children were African-Americans from families living below the poverty line. The aim of the research was to determine both the short- and long-term effects of a high-quality preschool program on children deemed at risk for school failure. The study—a project of the Ypsilanti school district, where Mr. Weikart worked—has received funding from various sources, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The children assigned to the demonstration program participated in small daily classes for two years with certified teachers who led them through the steps of planning their activities, following through with their work, and reviewing what they learned. Those in the control group did not attend preschool at all.

The study has been used—possibly more than any other early-childhood-education research—to push for greater spending on preschool. The findings have long been embraced by many educators and politicians, and more recently by economists who point to what they calculate as the nearly $13 economic return for each dollar spent on the program.

Law-enforcement officials also highlight the study’s crime statistics as evidence for the value of early intervention in the life of a child considered at higher risk, because of social and economic disadvantages, for getting into trouble later.

Former participants in the demonstration program have not all avoided brushes with the law. At age 40, 36 percent of those Perry alumni had been arrested five or more times in their lives. But that figure was significantly lower than the 55 percent reported for the control group. And 14 percent of the demonstration group had been arrested for drug crimes, compared with 34 percent of the control group.

In a written statement, Sanford Newman, the president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an advocacy organization based in Washington, said: “Law-enforcement leaders know that to win the war on crime, we need to be as willing to guarantee our kids space in a prekindergarten program as we are to guarantee a criminal a prison cell.”

Earlier longitudinal results also showed significant educational benefits. The 58 children who attended the program were more likely to graduate from high school—65 percent, compared with 45 percent—and to have better attitudes toward school than the 65 in the control group.

The High/Scope model is still widely used throughout the United States and the world. But while High/Scope has often been linked with the federal Head Start program, which also began in the 1960s, only 20 percent of Head Start classes use the High/ Scope model.

‘A Promising Path’

Some critics argue that just because the Perry Preschool produced enduring benefits for needy children does not necessarily mean that large-scale initiatives will have the same results, or that “universal” programs open to all children are a wise use of limited government money.

They also emphasize that the 123 subjects in the Perry Preschool study represent a very small sample. “The question is, can you scale it up?” said Krista Kafer, a senior education policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “I think the optimism is overblown.”

Lawrence J. Schweinhart

That’s why proponents of early-childhood education have more recently pinned their hopes on a Georgetown University study of the state-financed “universal” pre-K program in the 41,000-student Tulsa, Okla., school district.

The Georgetown researchers report that the program led to a 52 percent gain in scores on a letter- and word-recognition test, a 27 percent gain in spelling, and a 21 percent increase in applied problems, or pre-math.

The study, a follow-up to one released last year, found a rise in test scores for all racial and ethnic groups, though the increases among Hispanic and African-American children over the course of the pre-K year were the greatest.

Children from the poorest families, defined as those who are eligible for free federally financed school lunches, had the greatest gains in all three subject areas when researchers examined the scores by socioeconomic status.

“A universal pre-K program may or may not be the best path to school readiness,” write the authors of the report, William T. Gormley Jr., a professor of government and public policy at Georgetown, and Deborah Phillips, a psychology professor there. “It is, however, a promising path with considerable potential.”

In their newest study, Mr. Gormley and Ms. Phillips found that while the program, which is offered in both half- and full-day formats, has greater benefits for poor and minority children, it also has led to increases in school-readiness skills for middle-class and white children.

The Oklahoma pre-K program, which began in 1998, is different from similar initiatives in other states—and may come closer to the example set by the Perry Preschool program, because it requires that teachers have a bachelor’s degree and be fully certified.

‘Major Implication’

But some scholars wonder whether universal pre-K programs are really addressing the problem that most concerns policymakers: learning deficits among children from poor families.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley—who calls himself a “longtime fan of effective targeting”—argues that universal programs could reinforce and even widen learning gaps between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

“The major implication is that if everyone benefits, how can advocates argue it will close early achievement gaps?” he said.

Other experts, however, say that a lack of access to high-quality preschool programs is not only a problem among poor families.

Just last month, the National Institute for Early Education Research, in New Brunswick, N.J., released a study highlighting what the institute’s director, W. Steven Barnett, called “a large underserved segment of America whose incomes are above the eligibility levels for programs targeted to disadvantaged families.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Research Updates Lives of Perry Preschoolers


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