As reported in a pair of companion papers, the children of children who participated in a landmark 1960s study saw improvements in education, health, and employment—without participating in the same preschool program themselves.
Researchers say this suggests that early education can contribute to lasting upward mobility and help break cycles of poverty.
“For the first time, we have experimental evidence about how a case of early childhood education propagates across generations,” says James Heckman, distinguished service professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
Better education, better health
The papers further expand on work originally done from 1962 through 1967, when late psychologist David Weikart designed the HighScope Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Working with a sample of 123 low-income African American children, Weikart and colleagues randomly assigned 58 individuals to enter an enriched preschool environment, one that incorporated 2.5-hour weekday sessions and weekly 1.5-hour home visits with certified public school teachers.
Heckman’s new research draws from analysis of survey data, which accounts for approximately 85 percent of the original participants.
When compared with children of non-participants, the children of the Perry Preschoolers were more likely to complete high school without suspension (67 percent to 40 percent) and more likely to have full time jobs or be self-employed (59 percent to 42 percent). They also were less likely to have ever been arrested.
The original participants showed better health according to biomedical tests administered around age 55, and were also more likely to report their own children being healthy.
More than universal Pre-K
Growing out of a collaboration with the nonprofit organization HighScope that began a decade ago, Heckman’s research validates the return on investment in early childhood education, rigorously testing data to show that even future generations can continue to reap benefits.
The new papers offer more evidence that successful early education programs hinge on engaging with children and building social and emotional skills, says Heckman, who directs the Center for the Economics of Human Development.
Fostering those sorts of environments, he says, can lead to better life outcomes than trying to measure cognitive improvements.
He adds, however, that his research should not push policymakers toward universal pre-K programs, but to design interventions tailored to populations that are most in need and stand to benefit the most.
“I don’t believe we can directly talk about how children in affluent cities would benefit if they were enrolled in the Perry Program,” Heckman says. “Those children have significant benefits already. We should really understand that the lesson from a lot of this research has been about targeting.”