Can talking during snack time and making Jell-O in pre-K help break the cycle of poverty?
One of the leading experts on the effects of early education thinks so.
A bevy of research touts the benefits of high-quality early education, but Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s most recent published work from the University of Chicago looks at its inter-generational effects.
Now in their mid-50s, original participants in the early childhood study known as the Perry Preschool Project and their now-adult children saw significant gains in education, health, full-time employment, and reduced crime rates.
“It shows not only does pre-K have around a 12% rate of return but is probably higher if you factor in its effects on the second generation,” Heckman said during a call with reporters.
“We found there were fewer men committing crime among the original participants, which was a major boost to family earnings. They also had more stable marriages, which translated to healthier families because of the double income,” he added.
The Perry Preschool Project of 1962 was originally developed as a way to determine whether quality early childhood education could increase the IQ of economically disadvantaged children with below-average intelligence.
In it, 123 black children, ages 3 and 4, were divided into two groups: 58 attended the Perry Pre-K center a few hours a day and received a weekly home visit from the teachers. The others didn’t.
The children from the Perry Preschool spent at least three times longer with married parents, had fewer school suspensions or instances of illegal drug use or arrests, and were more likely to be employed full time.
What was different about the Perry Preschool curriculum was the lack thereof.
“To an outsider, it would have looked like a good part of the morning was play. But it was play that was very carefully structured in terms of the materials we put in the environment and very carefully structured in terms of the interactions of the teachers with the children,” Louise Derman-Sparks, one of the original teachers from the Perry Preschool, said in an interview with Emily Hanford of American Public Media.
Heckman also rejected the popular notion that zip code determines lifelong outcomes and said instead that family and home environment trumped location.
“The research finds that children of the treated Perry participants seem to be excelling in various life domains despite growing up in neighborhoods that are similar to or slightly worse off than the neighborhoods of the control (untreated group),” he said.
He also challenged what’s called “fadeout” — a term used to describe the expiration of the benefits of early education because of questionable links between pre-K attendance and later increases in academic scores.
Instead, he credited positive outcomes to social-emotional skills.
“Well-intentioned people look exclusively at test scores, but those scores only give a partial image of successful lives. The children who were treated were more engaged in life,” he said.
While some state governors have proposed increased spending on early education programs, Heckman suggested the highest return on quality pre-K would be to target children who are more at risk of falling behind their peers as a tool to address poverty and boost communities.