New research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman suggests that the benefits of early childhood education may extend much further than previously thought.
In a pair of research papers released today through the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development, Heckman makes the case that high-quality early childhood interventions can positively impact not just the children in these programs as they move through life, but even the children of the original participants decades later.
“For the first time, we have experimental evidence about how the case for early childhood propagates across generations,” said Heckman in a call with reporters. “Not only is there the first-generation effect on the treatment group, but also there’s a second-generation effect.”
Heckman and his team surveyed participants in the Perry Preschool Project, a randomized-control test of a Michigan early learning preschool program that featured in-home family engagement. The original study was started five decades ago; Heckman followed up with a survey to learn about the lives of the children of people who participated in the Perry study and the outcomes for children of the control group from the original study.
The team’s research found that participation in the early childhood program had positive intergenerational impacts on education, employment and crime for the families involved with the study. The children of the people who participated in the preschool program were more likely to be in good health, have a high degree of educational attainment and a history of employment, compared with peers with no connection to the project.
For example, the offspring of Perry Preschool Project participants were over 30 percent more likely to have never been suspended from high school than the children of the control group participants. They also had 26 percent higher odds of being employed full time.
Part of the reason for the difference in the second generation, researchers said, was that children of the Perry participants were more likely to grow up in a stable, two-parent home with more resources during childhood. But new research also posits that these intergenerational effects are still present no matter where families lived – the survey found that Perry families live in neighborhoods similar to, and in some cases worse than, the control group.
According to Heckman, this means that family structure may be more important than location alone in charting the way families were impacted by the Perry Preschool Project.
“There is a lot of interest by journalism in outlets about research arguing that zip code is destiny,” Heckman said, on a phone call with media yesterday. “The evidence there is weak.”
In addition to looking at the children of original study participants, Heckman and his colleague Ganesh Karapakula found that siblings of children involved with the Perry Preschool Project enjoyed lifelong benefits. Siblings who were in the home prior to the family’s enrollment in the Perry program enjoyed positive “spillover” effects, such as being more likely to graduate high school and obtain employment when compared with others in the control group. According to Heckman, increased parental activity around the home and the benefits of the home visit may have carried over to the whole home environment, including other family members.
The iconic High/Scope Perry Preschool Study showed the benefits of early childhood education based on a program first started in the 1960s in Ypsilanti, Mich. The research effort involved looking at 128 low-income African-American children in a city just west of Detroit. The program consisted of several hours a day of instruction for 3- and 4-year-old children at a preschool center with a curriculum that emphasized active learning, with children engaged in activities that involved decision making and problem solving. Each week, a teacher or staff member from the school made a home visit designed to help the mother apply the preschool curriculum at home.
Initially, the Perry Preschool Project hoped to demonstrate a way to improve the IQ of poor children. A study of the program did document a boost in IQ for many children, but most of those gains faded out after several years. However, several later evaluations of the Perry study followed up with participants and a control group over the course of their lifetimes and found substantial benefits.
Children who had participated in the program for either one or two years were more likely to graduate high school, to have higher earnings from jobs and to have better socio-emotional skills than the comparison group. They also had less involvement with the criminal justice system, fewer births outside of marriage and less likelihood to be dependent on welfare assistance as an adult. The impact was especially pronounced for male children, an effect that is consistent for children and siblings of program participants in Heckman’s research.
As evaluations of the Perry Preschool Project have shifted from IQ to other measures in recent decades, Heckman suggested that researchers are now learning how to better understand the benefits of high-quality early childhood education.
“We’re in it for a lifetime here, and we also know that there are a variety of skills that we are currently only now starting to measure that lead to the success of individuals in life,” Heckman said.
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