The Frontal Cortex

The Perry Preschool

Sometimes, while working on a story one comes across a data set that’s so interesting it just has to be shared. Unfortunately, it can’t quite be shoehorned into the tight narrative of the article. That’s why God invented the sidebar. My recent story on grit included a sidebar on some incredibly important work from the Perry Preschool, including an important new analysis of the data by James Heckman, et. al. which finds that preschool provides a crucial boost in “non-cognitive” skills.

In the 1960s, researchers began a study of 123 African-American children born into poverty. When the children were 3 years old, they were randomly assigned to either a treatment group, and given a high-quality preschool education, or to a control group, which received no preschool education at all.

The subjects were then tracked over the ensuing decades, with the most recent analysis comparing the groups at the age of 40. The differences, even decades after the intervention, were stark: adults assigned to the preschool program were 20 percent more likely to have graduated from high school and 19 percent less likely to have been arrested more than five times.

The Perry Preschool study is a powerful demonstration that early childhood education has lasting benefits. But what skills did the preschool experience actually improve? The initial evidence suggested that the children benefited from dramatic boosts in their IQ scores, but the effect faded with time, and by age 10 it had vanished. James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has recently demonstrated that, rather than boost intelligence, the Perry Preschool led to permanent improvements in various personality traits, such as self-control and grit. He argues that it’s time policy makers stop fixating on academic test scores and instead devote resources to improving these attributes.

“Our educational approach in America is rather misguided,” Heckman says. “We’ve been focused on cognitive this, cognitive that, but we’ve mostly ignored the traits and skills that actually predict success in life.”

For more on the Perry Preschool studies, see here. And here’s a nice summary on Heckman’s incredibly influential work documenting the economic returns of early childhood education.


  1. #1 Jim
    August 11, 2009

    While I certainly agree with the assessment that there’s too much focus on cognitive learning, and not enough focus on the less tangible character-building lessons, I think you can’t draw this study too far. Remember that those being studied were living in poverty. That is a well known factor to have significant negative long-term impacts on people. Those that didn’t get to go to the pre-school were just as likely to be “educated” in a very negative environment for those years (not to say all were, but there’s probably a statistically significant number).
    The real example would be to compare the preschool case study with those from middle to upper-middle class homes where they didn’t go to preschool. What are differences in statistics? How many more graduated from schools, and have become “successful” later in life?
    Early childhood education can be a good thing, but children can be develop to be just as successful from having caring loving parents raising them. In some cases (colloquial information, not statistically relevant) I’ve known families where the child is much better off in their home environment then they would be at the pre-school.
    Really, it comes down to what is better for a healthy society – spending money on early childhood education (assuming all parents will be working instead of home raising their children)? Or would it be better to make sure that people could afford to have a parent stay home to raise their children (again, assuming that there is reasonable opportunity to educate people how to raise children)? And then, how do you find the ballance for those that fall in-between?

  2. #2 royniles
    August 11, 2009

    Since when are “successful” personality traits that are learned, as this study indicates, not a form of cognitive intelligence, if not perhaps one of the most important aspects of that intelligence?

  3. #3 jksB120
    August 13, 2009

    The study is extremely accurate in that early childhood development and learning are key factors to a child’s success in the future. Most of early childhood development is based on the child’s environment. If he is not placed in a proper environment in which one can learn and reach his full potential, his future is not as promising as a child who was given the proper education.

    There are many who believe that in schools, factual learning is stressed too much and learning values and proper lessons are not. However with teaching these moral values, political correctness comes into play and opinions and lessons are often times more difficult to teach than facts. It is in the social environment of the child in which he will learn those lessons necessary to succeed in life.

  4. #4 Julie Simon Lakehomer
    August 14, 2009

    I’m so glad you posted this study. I’m writing an article on the general topic of successful school interventions, so I will follow up on your leads. But the notion of positive effects being quite varied matches the results found some time back for Head Start. In the long run, children who had attended Head Start didn’t have higher grades, etc., but they were significantly more likely to finish high school than their non-Head-Start peers. Who knows why? I like to think that part of it was a positive experience that made them believe in school as a good place to be.

  5. #5 sohbet et
    August 18, 2009