The Perry Preschoolers are All Grown Up and Their Experiences Continue to Guide the Field

If you’ve ever sat through a presentation on education research or early childhood education, you’ve likely heard of the Perry Preschool project. This seminal research study examined 123 preschool children in Ypsilanti, Michigan who were at risk for school failure. The kids were randomly divided into two groups: One group attended a high-quality preschool program and the comparison group received no preschool education. The participants were tracked throughout their lifetimes.

The widely studied long-term positive results of attending the preschool included higher rates of graduating high school, higher employment rates, higher earnings, and fewer teen pregnancies and criminal behavior. As one of the only randomized control trials in early childhood education, the Perry Project remains widely cited.

Even though fifty years have passed since the Perry Preschool program actively served children, the results still offer lessons for the early childhood education field.

Current discussions of early childhood interventions often focus on whether pre-K programs raise children’s readiness for kindergarten or their elementary school test scores. But new research from Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman and co-author Ganesh Karapakula — the first analysis of Perry Preschool participants through mid-life — illustrates the short-sightedness of this approach. Their report demonstrates that high-quality early childhood interventions can have a dramatic impact not only on program participants’ life outcomes but also the life outcomes of their future offspring. Some of their findings:

High-quality early childhood interventions can produce a second-generation effect and therefore should play a role in addressing intergenerational poverty. In the early childhood field, dual-generation programs that serve low-income parents and their children are often looked at as promising models. Heckman and Karapakula’s findings suggest that high-quality early childhood interventions focused solely on young children can actually impact two generations as well: the present program participants and their future offspring. They found that the children of Perry Preschool participants — most of whom are now in their mid-20s — were less likely to be suspended from school, more likely to complete high school, and more likely to be employed full-time with some college experience. Children of participants were also more likely to be employed and to not be involved with the criminal justice system. This is consistent with emerging research on the effects of Head Start exposure to the second generation.

“’Zip code is destiny’ is toothless.” Heckman and Karapakula’s latest study disproves the idea that the outcomes measured in the second generation are only present because the first generation moved to a more affluent neighborhood. Their survey found that children of Perry participants lived in “similar or slightly worse off” neighborhoods as their parents. During a press call with journalists, Heckman emphasized that a stable family environment matters more than zip code and that the American rhetoric that “zip code is destiny” is wrong. He attributed the second generation’s increased educational attainment and decreased criminal involvement to the fact that their parents were more likely to be in stable marriages and provide a more secure family home environment.

Successful early childhood programs enhance parental engagement with their children. On the press call, Heckman highlighted that when he looks across the successful early childhood interventions he has studied — including programs in other countries — the “universal element is enhanced parent-child interaction.” He stated that high-quality programs — whether they are home visiting programs or preschool programs — engage the parent in the life of a child, which ultimately leads to better outcomes for the child.

Evaluating programs simply by the test scores they produce can lead to a short-sighted understanding. Research on Perry has been used to both assert that high-quality pre-K can increase IQ and that these effects ultimately fade out, thereby bolstering arguments that pre-K is not worthy of investment and that IQ is immutable. Since the 1960s, our understanding of cognitive psychology has expanded, and we’ve begun to understand the importance of pairing academic skills with social-emotional skills. Heckman explained: “I think what we have come to understand is that those scores on that test give only a partial summary of what determines successful lives.”

Heckman and Karapakula’s latest research makes for good headlines, but beyond that, it also confirms what early childhood advocates have long known: that early childhood education is powerful and worthy of investment, and that the trend in recent years to evaluate these programs by looking at the test scores of elementary school students is shortsighted and disingenuous.