This blog post was contributed by Pauline Slot (Utrecht University).
How are the poor children doing that participated more than 40 years ago in the famous Perry Preschool Project, now they are middle-aged adults? Renowned scholar James Heckman analyzed the effects of high quality early childhood education on child outcomes on the short and the long term. The newest findings report evidence up to age 55 years and also provides more insights in the mechanisms underlying this positive impact. Three important conclusions can be drawn.
1. Early childhood education has a positive impact on participants’ life
The Perry Preschool Program was originally developed as a research study, a randomized control trial among poor families living in highly deprived urban area in the United Sates (US) in which the treatment group was provided with high quality preschool education and home visiting. The initial goal was to increase the IQ of children to improve their cognitive development and school achievement. Although the program failed to permanently increase participants’ IQ, the effects on other outcomes are strong and persistent. Perry Preschool children had better chances for employment, better health outcomes, and were less involved in criminal activity, especially violent crime. These results are consistent over the life course and were evident even at age 55 years. The findings also highlight that Perry participants experienced a more positive home environment and better parental attachment during childhood compared to the control group, which most likely play an important role in explaining the improved adult outcomes.
2. There are effects of Perry Preschool on the children’s families
The program also showed effects on children and siblings of Perry Preschool participants. 67% of Perry Preschool participant’s children completed high school without suspension compared to 40% of control group participants’ children. Also, children of Perry Preschool participants were less likely to be suspended, addicted or arrested. This applied to 60% of the children of participants compared to 40% of the children of nonparticipating families. The children of participants also showed higher levels of full-time employment (59%) compared to children of the control group participants (42%). The effects were strongest for boys and in particular sons of male Perry Preschool participants.
There were also sibling effects on children that were present in the family at the time of intervention but were not eligible for participation themselves. These siblings show a higher likelihood of high school graduation and employment. Again, for male siblings the effects are the strongest and these siblings also show less likelihood of being arrested or addicted.
3. Family context matters more than the neighborhood
Both the control group and Perry Preschool participants grew up in poor and deprived areas. However, the Perry participants managed to create more stable family homes as adults. They had more stable marriages and tended to have children slightly later in life, thus being able to provide more resources and attention to their children. Children of Perry Preschool participants were 3 times more likely to grow up with stably married parents by age 18. For male children of male participants, this was even 15 times more likely the case. The children of both treated and non-treated participants grew up in similar poor neighborhoods, thus the intergenerational effects are most likely due to the more stable home environment and the better financial resources the Perry participants were able to provide.