High-quality preschool may be an effective way to reduce social problems associated with poverty because it teaches children the psychological skills they need to succeed as adults, a new study shows.
In two previous papers published in 2010, researchers found that children who participated in a randomized early childhood intervention had profoundly better adult lives than peers who did not attend the program. For example, attendees were 30 to 50 percent less likely to commit a crime.
The findings were so striking that President Barack Obama referred to the studies in this year’s State of the Union address during his pitch for universal preschool.
The HighScope Perry Preschool experiment was conducted in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the mid-1960s to test the lifetime benefit of high-quality preschool for a sample of disadvantaged African-American children.
Researchers tracked the attendees through age 40 by collecting data from psychological tests, school achievements, employment, family and health outcomes, and police and prison records.
The researchers’ earlier studies established that the Perry Preschool Project provided a significant benefit to the attendees’ adult lives.
The new analysis, published in the American Economic Review, links these successful adult outcomes to the behavioral skills attendees learned during the program.
Preschool’s lasting benefits
Researchers used factor-analytic econometric methods to examine what made the Perry program so successful.
First, they sorted multiple childhood skill measurements into three broad categories—cognition, academic motivation, and externalizing behavior.
Cognition was measured by IQ tests. Academic motivation included measurements of academic engagement: initiative, interest in schoolwork, and persistence. Externalizing behaviors included measurements of antisocial behaviors like lying, stealing, swearing, or being aggressive or disruptive.
The authors found a relationship between improvements in these skills and better adult outcomes. Then they broke down how much each of the effects of preschool on life outcomes was attributable to each of the three skills.
While the Perry Project had only a temporary effect on IQ—it faded not long after the children completed the program—the authors found that the preschool had durable effects on the children’s noncognitive skills.
Girls experienced an improvement in academic motivation, and both boys and girls exhibited a significant reduction in externalizing behavior—which the researchers say is the program’s most lasting and life-changing effect.
Behaved kids, successful adults
Learning how to be well behaved as a young child, it turns out, is one of the strongest predictors of adult success. In some categories, such as crime, employment, and health outcomes, up to 70 percent of the benefits of attending the Perry Preschool are due to the project’s effect on reducing externalizing behaviors. Additionally, the research suggests that the necessary skills are quite teachable.
“A quality preschool education choice available to all Americans is a good idea as long as the project is financially sustainable,” says Peter Savelyev, assistant professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, suggesting that it could be if families who could afford to do so paid for the services on a sliding scale.
“What we know from our research is that investments in high quality education for disadvantaged children bring even higher returns to society than financial returns on stock market investments during the prosperous period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Great Recession.
“It is not easy to find an example of a government program that is more effective than this.”
The effect is too compelling to be ignored, the researchers say.
“The importance and malleability of these skills deserves greater emphasis in public policies designed to promote skill and alleviate poverty.”
James Heckman and Rodrigo Pinto of the University of Chicago contributed to the study.
Source: Vanderbilt University