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Understanding the lifelong benefits of preschool

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High-quality preschool is an effective way to reduce social problems associated with poverty because it teaches children the psychological skills they need to succeed as adults, according to a new paper co-authored by Peter Savelyev, a Vanderbilt assistant professor of economics who studies the economics of human development.

Peter Savelyev
Peter Savelyev (Photo courtesy of Peter Savelyev)

In two previous papers published in 2010, Savelyev and co-authors including the Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman found that children who participated in the Perry Project had profoundly better adult lives than peers who did not attend the program. For example, attendees were 30–50 percent less likely to commit a crime. The findings of these rigorous reanalysis papers were so striking that President Obama referred to the studies in this year’s State of the Union address during his pitch for universal preschool.

In a new paper published in the American Economic Review, Savelyev with his co-authors James Heckman and University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate Rodrigo Pinto sought to understand the mechanisms underlying the Perry Preschool Project’s dramatic success.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Project

The HighScope Perry Preschool experiment was a randomized early childhood intervention conducted in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the mid-1960’s to test the lifetime benefit of high-quality preschool for a sample of disadvantaged African-American children. The HighScope researchers tracked the attendees through age 40 by collecting data from psychological tests, school achievements, employment, family and health outcomes, as well as police and prison records.

The researchers’ earlier studies established that the Perry Preschool Project provided a significant benefit to the attendees’ adult lives.

New analysis links skills learned in preschool to adult outcomes

The new analysis links these successful adult outcomes to the behavioral skills attendees learned during the program.

Savelyev and his collaborators 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.

Noncognitive skills, not IQ, have greatest life impact

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.

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,” said Savelyev, 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. [lquote]It is not easy to find an example of a government program that is more effective than this.”[/lquote]

The researchers conclude that the effect is too compelling to be ignored. “The importance and malleability of these skills deserves greater emphasis in public policies designed to promote skill and alleviate poverty.”