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Preschool Stories

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Preschool Stories

The results of the legendary experimental Perry program don’t live up to the hype. Summer 2015

If you’ve been following the discussion about how to solve inequality, you’ve doubtless heard a lot about preschool. Social scientists such as best-selling Our Kids author Robert Putnam and Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman have promoted preschool as an inequality buster. President Obama and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, along with Red states like Oklahoma and Georgia, have already put big money behind the cause.

Preschool advocates almost always cite the legendary experimental Perry Preschool as exhibit A for the powers of early childhood education. I recently stumbled across a final summary of findings about Perry’s participants at 40 years old. Though the report was released more than a decade ago, and, yes, the results were as impressive as you find in antipoverty programs, they don’t begin to live up to the hype. In fact, they don’t show—not remotely—that preschool can have any impact on inequality—or, for that matter, on long-term poverty.

First, some background: the Perry experiment, conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan, between 1962 and 1967, involved 123 poor African-American children, all three or four years old, who were randomly divided into two groups. The treatment group spent two and a half hours a day with certified teachers who had at least a B.A. and were guided by a carefully designed curriculum; parents also had the benefit of counseling during weekly visits by staff. The other group received no special intervention. Perry’s random-assignment design, considered the gold standard by social scientists, along with regular follow-ups during elementary school as well as the interviews of former participants when they were 15, 19, 27, and 40 years old, has made the findings especially prized by policymakers and kept methodology wonks busy for decades.

It’s not unusual for decent preschools to produce temporary improvements with disadvantaged students, and Perry did. The treatment group achieved higher standardized test and vocabulary scores than the nontreatment control group, though the differences faded by fourth grade, a common finding in the preschool literature. What set Perry apart were its apparent lifetime effects. Eighty-eight percent of the Perry girls (the girls in the treatment group, not the nontreatment control group) earned a high school degree, compared with only 46 percent of nontreatment counterparts. As teenagers, Perry girls were significantly less likely than their nontreatment counterparts to get pregnant. The Perry boys didn’t show the same dramatic education advantage as the girls: 54 percent of the male treatment group graduated high school, compared with only 43 percent of the nontreatment group. Perry boys also committed fewer crimes than the boys in the nontreatment group. Between reduced prison and victimization costs, lower crime rates created by far the biggest cost-benefit of the program.

There were other gains as well. By the time they were 40, compared with their nontreatment peers, Perry girls and boys earned more money and were more likely to own their own homes, have at least one car, open a savings account, get married, and report fewer health problems. One can see why policymakers got excited by these results.

But—and you will almost never see this caveat in the thousands of celebratory references to the program—the best that can be said about the Perry kids is that they wound up less poor than their untreated peers. At age 40, those in the treatment group had median annual earnings (including benefits) of $20,800 (in 2000 dollars), versus $15,300 for the untreated. That’s a substantial difference but not enough to take the Perry grads out of the ranks of the “near-poor,” as conventionally defined. (The poverty threshold for a family of four in 2000 was $17,603; “near-poverty” is defined as between 100 percent and 125 percent of the poverty line.)

Nor is that the only reason to temper Perry-based hopes. The nontreatment-group women, who were more likely to become teen mothers, had higher rates of welfare dependency before age 26. But there were no significant differences in the overall nonmarital birthrates between the two groups—and by 40, female Perry grads, who tended to become mothers in their later twenties, surpassed their nontreatment peers in welfare dependency and nonmarital childbearing. Half of treatment-group women were on the dole at some point between ages 26 and 40, compared with only 41 percent of the untreated. They also clocked far more time on welfare—an average of 59 months—compared with 24 months for nontreatment females. More disappointing still were the findings related to children of the Perry participants. As the report puts it: “The two oldest children raised by program-group members did not differ significantly from the two oldest children raised by no-program group members in education, employment, arrests, or welfare status.” In the debate over economic and cultural causes for poverty, the economic camp argues that if poor parents had higher earnings and savings, less material hardship, more residential stability, and less parental incarceration, their children would be more successful. The Perry data fail to support that theory.

This doesn’t mean that the Perry preschool program achieved nothing worthwhile. Overall, Perry appears to have saved taxpayers money and, most important, to have diminished suffering. Perry grads showed signs of stronger emotional well-being, better relations with their children, and less drug use, even at 40. If we knew how to replicate the Perry program within the context of a dramatically changed labor market and a very different cultural environment—and how to bring it to scale over the long term—the effect on crime alone might be enough to recommend a large preschool push modeled on Perry.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that we know how to do either. It is clear, alas, that we have no reason to believe that preschool can reduce inequality.

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