by Karen R. Effrem, MD
As the evidence — even from respected pro-preschool researchers — continues to mount that government preschool programs are not particularly helpful and may actually be academically and emotionally harmful, the pro-nanny state side comes up with another “study” to say that preschool has some magical long-term benefits that previous research somehow failed to reveal. The latest example is the revival of the Perry Preschool Project. The original study of about 60 poor black children in a very intensive preschool and home visiting program and 60 controls found participants’ IQ scores initially improved but then returned to the same level as their peers. This fadeout effect has been noted in multiple other larger and more recent studies of preschool.
According to University of Chicago economist James Heckman, ongoing research shows the children of Perry participants did much better in school and life than did the children of non-participants. As summarized in The Hechinger Report:
67 percent of the adult children of Perry participants completed high school without a suspension, compared to just 40 percent of the children of non-participants. Sixty percent have never been suspended, addicted or arrested, compared to 40 percent of the children of non-participants. And 59 percent were employed full-time or self-employed, compared to 42 percent of the children of non-participants.
Of particular interest is the data reported on how children of Perry participants, especially boys, were raised in stable two-parent families:
All children of Perry participants benefitted from their parents’ tendency to remain in stable marriages, for example, which increased the adult resources and attention available to them. Kids of Perry participants spent three times as much of their childhoods with married parents than the children of non-participants. This was true even though even though participants and non-participants had about the same number of children.
But boys born to fathers who attended Perry benefitted the most. Among those older than 18, boys of Perry participants spent 15 times more of their childhood with stable married parents than the children of non-participants. These boys also did better on the other life outcome measures included in the study.
Heckman declares, “This latest finding ‘proves that these early life improvements can carry on to second generations.’” However, he is giving far too much credit to the program and not nearly enough credit to the critical factors of parental involvement and family structure of stable two-parent families, as well as other methodological flaws. As noted in my Federalist article on preschool, the Perry program required “a mother home during the day—making the experimental group very different from the control group.” Russ Whitehurst, first head of the federal Institute for Education Sciences and now at the center-left Brookings Institution, said:
Perry was an intensive, expensive, multi-year, hothouse program carried out 50 years ago with less than 100 black children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The mothers stayed at home and received home visitation. The control group children had no other preschool services available to them.
This is similar to the long-term outcomes of the Chicago Parent Child Program, which claimed to produce significantly improved outcomes for participants in their twenties based on preschool education and extra help in grades K-3. However, in fact, the results as discussed both by researchers at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and myself showed that the results for income, college participation, employment, and avoidance of criminal behavior were only statistically significant, but not practically noticeable. Additionally, any true differences in outcomes could easily have been attributable to the required parental involvement component of the program as to the program itself. The AEI paper noted:
Researchers do not know whether greater parental involvement was caused by the CPC preschool or whether more involved parents were more likely to send their children to CPC preschool in the first place. So it is not clear whether the most important factor in children’s longer-term outcomes was their participation in pre-K or the kind of parents they have.
The Hechinger Report notes the typical research double speak employed for issues such as preschool and social emotional learning:
Although the study admits, “Less is known about the second generation than about the first, but researchers argue that the data they have is significant enough to show a clear positive effect.”
If less is known about the second generation than the first, how can the researchers claim the data is significant? The full paper also admits that the second generation of Perry participants were not randomized as part of the study.
While the full paper also correctly admits, “family structure is likely more important than neighborhoods in accounting for the intergenerational treatment effects on the Perry families,” Heckman and company do not understand or are unwilling to admit that the preponderance of research shows that growing up in stable two-parent families is the key factor for lifetime success and the elimination of the achievement gap, not the existence or structure of the preschool program. If the original Perry study had not required the presence of the mother at home, there likely would not have been the initial IQ improvement in the first generation or the wonderful improvements in the second generation, which the researchers admit is due primarily to family structure and parental involvement.
As has been extensively documented here, here, here, and here to name a few, preschool at best shows modest effects initially that fade away. Otherwise, it shows no improvement, or worse, shows academic and emotional harm. And efforts to shift from preschool to home visiting programs will fare no better.
What is really needed to stop the rapid and rampant societal decay in our nation is promotion of two-parent married family formation, which as discussed above and extensively documented by researchers such as Dr. Patrick Fagan and Dr. William Jeynes will prevent a multitude of ills, such as dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, etc. The loving nurture of a mother and father will also promote many beneficial effects such as less mental illness, higher graduation rates, and increased quality of life.
The situation is dire. Children need parents, not programs.