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Since The 1960s, Researchers Track Perry Preschool Project Participants

May 23, 2019
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a truth about the news - you don't really know the most important stuff on the first day of a big news story. You may have to follow up and follow up, sometimes for years - and in this case, decades. More than 50 years ago, educators enrolled children from poor families in a preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich. What came to be known as the Perry Preschool Project showed that early childhood interventions have powerful effects for disadvantaged kids.

Now, there's new work on this project. And NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam spoke with Noel King.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: So what's the new finding?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, to understand the finding, Noel, you have to understand the context. The program was initially started to boost the academic scores of kids. But in a few years, the data showed it didn't do that.

But as researchers tracked the kids into adulthood, they found that kids who went through the program had better life outcomes than kids in the control group. They had more earnings, more stable long-term relationships, less trouble with the law. The new work compares the children of participants who went through the program with the children of participants who were in the control group.

Here's James Heckman. He's an economist at the University of Chicago and a winner of the Nobel Prize.

JAMES HECKMAN: The children of the participants are healthier, earning more. They have better social and emotional skills, are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college, less likely to be incarcerated or even have ever been arrested. So what you see is beneficial effects that go on to the next generation.

KING: So you're a kid whose parents went through this program and got the early intervention. And today, you are more likely to be doing better than the child of someone who didn't get this early intervention.

VEDANTAM: That's right, Noel.

KING: Well, what then did the early intervention entail? What was - what were these kids getting?

VEDANTAM: The program provided a nurturing and stimulating environment. Kids learn things like communication skills, basic arithmetic, and what I call noncognitive skills - how to stay with a task if you don't succeed at first, How to work with others, how to cooperate with others. The program also sent teachers into the homes of the kids, where they worked with the parents to design stimulating activities for the kids so that the positive environment of the program could be extended into the home.

KING: I mean, what's so interesting about this is you hear about these interventions and you just assume, OK, they work in the moment. If they work at all, they work in the moment.

VEDANTAM: It is a remarkable finding, Noel. Heckman and his co-author in the new study, Ganesh Karapakula, say there is also a relatively simple explanation for the finding.

HECKMAN: The original group, it turns out - they're more likely to have stable families and earnings. So they provide their own children with a nurturing environment, far richer than that is for the nontreated children. This is a social program that not only benefits the recipient, it goes on. And it's, you know, the gift that keeps on giving, if you will.

VEDANTAM: Now, Heckman says that expanding high-quality programs like Perry will definitely not be cheap. But I think the data shows that the multigenerational return on investment is simply staggering.

KING: One more thing about this that's really interesting. You said at the beginning that the original aim of this program was to get these kids' grades up, and that part didn't work.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. I mean, the study was started in the 1960s, when cognitive skills and ability were seen as the be-all and end-all of a successful life. I think what this study showed is that, in many ways, cognitive abilities - doing well on a test - is actually not what drives your success in life. It's these noncognitive skills - conscientiousness, grit, resilience. These are the things that determine whether people are successful in life.

KING: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. And you can learn more about James Heckman's work on the podcast he hosts, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.