Jonah Lehrer, writing in Wired, makes an interesting point about the oft-cited High Scope Perry Preschool project, an experiment in Michigan that found short-term gains for poor African-American children enrolled in a high quality preschool program. Skeptics often note that the gains in IQ for students who participated in the high quality Perry Preschool slipped back after a few years, a critique that’s also made of Head Start and other early education programs.
But Lehrer notes that IQ may not be as important as other skills the students gained from preschool that were more durable, including self-control and grit. Kids in high quality preschool might not end up valedictorians, but perhaps they learned not to eat the marshmallow. As Lehrer puts it: “Preschool might not make us smarter – our intelligence is strongly shaped by our genes – but it can make us a better person, and that’s even more important.”
Anyone involved in covering pre-kindergarten issues at some point hears a reference to the Perry Preschool study, which examined the lives of 123 African American children who were born in poverty. The study was the first of its kind to quantify the impact a high-quality preschool program had on the lives of children, and it is still widely quoted.
Over the years, EarlyStories has heard countless references to the study, but never really thought more deeply about what the actual experience was like for the people involved in it before listening to Emily Hanford’s excellent broadcast on American RadioWorks. Hanford’s “Early Lessons,” report should be required for any journalist — or anyone, really — with an interest in preschool.
Hanford, a producer at American Radio Works, acknowledges she didn’t know much about preschool issues, or about the Perry Preschool Project until she tackled the same question the study attempted to answer: Can preschool boost IQ scores and prevent children from failing in school?
In three visits to Yipslanti, Michigan, where the study took place, Hanford grew fascinated with both the history of the study and the profound questions it attempted to raise about equity in education. She learned a great deal about David Weikart, the Perry preschool founder who died in 2003. Weikart started the Perry preschool in 1958, according to Hanford, “in response to frustration with what he describes in his memoir as “the pace of needed changes in a small, local school system.”
Hanford tracked down at least three of the teachers at the school, who share stories about visits to apple orchards and other ways the children learned about the world around them. The Perry preschool, Hanford’s report notes, focused “on cognitive development – stimulating children’s brains, increasing their vocabulary, teaching them letters and numbers.”
Hanford’s piece is filled with powerful interviews and descriptions of what life was like at the school: “I would do whatever we needed to do,” former Perry teacher Evelyn Moore told Hanford, “to prove that this many African-American children were not retarded.”
Hanford noted in an interview with EarlyStories: “This is history that is going to go away soon. “The researcher is dead. The teachers will be gone — most are gone already — and even the kids are going to be gone, so it was a great thing to capture this history at a moment in time.”
Hanford had not heard of the Perry study before she began the project, made possible with support from the Spencer Foundation which investigates ways in which education can be improved around the world and believes research is part of the equation.
“I literally spent a month just reading and talking to people and trying to figure out what education research has had an impact on policy,” Hanford said. “I was more interested in the question of how research effects policy…and whether and how research informs public policy in a positive way. It’s an open question — sometimes research doesn’t do what it should.”
A transcript of Hanford’s project is available here, and the program can also be downloaded.
Given the news of the past two weeks one would expect a group calling itself the “Partnership for America’s Economic Success” to talk about credit availability, productivity or market regulation (or deregulation.) But as radio documentarian Emily Hanford reported this past weekend, the partnership of business leaders and foundations actually is devoted to expanding investment in early childhood education. In a piece titled “The Business of Pre-Kindergarten” for American Public Media’s Weekend America service, Hanford reported that a founder of the group, Rob Dugger, is an economist and a partner in an international hedge fund. He is trying to get business leaders to think about the return of such investments over the long term. Hanford has great audio of Dugger using business rhetoric that can sound awkward when applied to investments in children.
Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dugger says: “Our goal for five years has been to informationally weaponize those of you in the early childhood development community so that you can compete successfully in a budget world in which evidence-based long term returns is what is going to be the deciding factor of who gets money and who doesn’t.”
A number of foundations are investors, including MacArthur and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is a supporter of this blog, invests in and manages the partnership. Sara Watson, who heads up that effort, champions the economic arguments. But she also says: “There are some investments in children we should make that will never show an economic return but we have to do them or we should do them. So we want to be careful that we don’t set too high of a bar.”
Teachers College Prof. Henry Levin and Clive Belfield of Queens College (formerly of TC) are getting attention for “The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education,” an interesting book they edited that tries to calculate the costs to the economy of school failure. It’s worth checking out because part of it tries to find interventions that actually work and then tries to figure out if they are cost effective. (Of course that calculation gets into all sorts of non-quantitative stuff like values, one’s philosophy regarding the role of government and society’s obligations to its members.) For example, the economists calculate that offering preschool the quality of the legendary Perry Preschool Project of 40 years ago to 100 children would produce an additional 19 high school graduates. But the study concludes that a high school reform program called First Things First provides far better bang for the buck.
A story in the Philadelphia Tribune, which targets the city’s African American community, illustrates the dangers of overselling the crimefighting powers of pre-k. House Republican leader Sam Smith and Democratic state Rep. Dwight Evans are sparring over just that. Smith has been saying Philadelphia has had Head Start and pre-k and still had more than 400 homicides last year. Evans and the city’s police commissioner are saying spend more money on pre-k to cut crime. The story did a decent job of catching the back and forth. But the murders are happening now. An investment in pre-k will pay off but not next year or even for the next 10 years. Five year olds don’t commit murders.
Advocates for universal pre-school have to be careful about overselling. And media skepticism should help the advocates avoid that. Police chiefs seem particularly prone to this behavior. In Pennsylvania, where there’s $75 million in new preschool monies being debated by the Legislature, the state’s police chiefs have been among those leading the charge. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story the other day quoted Pittsburgh Asst. Chief Paul Donaldson saying, “Quality pre-kindergarten programs are our most effective weapons in fighting crime.” Really? More so than community policing?
The story also said the $75 million would generate a 17-to-1 return on investment, which is a figure that’s tossed around far too easily.
Such statements have to be qualified and journalists have to do it–if the advocates are unwilling to do so. The 17-1 figure is based on the return over more than three decades from a program called the Perry Preschool Project that lasted for five years back in the 1960s. So, for Legislatures worried about balancing a budget today, the returns will accrue long after they’ve left public service. Also the program that would be expanded in Pennsylvania is not like the Perry Preschool,
which was of much, much higher quality and cost. [See Update below] Plus, the Perry Preschool was aimed at very disadvantaged kids. It wasn’t a universal program available to all. A universal program would not get rates of return anywhere close to these. Finally, it’s true the Perry Preschool reduced crime but it didn’t eliminate it. Those who went through Perry Preschool were, on average, likely to be arrested fewer times, not that they were not likely to have been arrested.
UPDATES: I checked out the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts website. The state program looks to set quite high programmatic standards, relative to other states. Also, the new money that Gov. Rendell is pushing IS targeted to disadvantaged children. Still, the program wouldn’t measure up to the Perry Preschool, which cost in 2007 dollars about $15,000 per child and had one teacher (trained in special education and early childhood development) for every seven children. (Pennsylvania requires one certified teacher and an aide for every 17 children.) It’s true that most of the cost-benefits from the Perry experiment came from a reduction in crime: in fact, about $13 of the $17 return came from that source alone. A good, clear, dispassionate analysis of the economic returns of preschool programs can be found here. It’s something every journalist who covers these issues should keep close as a resource.