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New research finds benefits of landmark Ypsilanti preschool project are multigenerational

young kids playing with toys on floor
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Baulos says children of parents who participated in the Perry Preschool program were less likely to be suspended, more likely to graduate, and more likely to be employed full-time.

High-quality early childhood education can have benefits that extend generations. That’s according to some of thelatest researchon the Perry Preschool Project. The study took place in Ypsilanti in the 1960s, and offered a high-quality preschool program to a group of "high-risk" three- and four-year-olds. 

Researchers have been following this group through the decades to see what long-term impacts that intervention had on participants. Now, decades later, researchers have found significant impacts on the health and well-being of not just the participants, but their children as well.

Alison Baulos is the executive director for the Center for Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, which conducted the research into the multi-generational impact of the Perry Preschool Project. She joins Stateside to talk about the findings, and about how the center’s research can inform early childhood education policy in Michigan.

The Perry Preschool Project was designed as an experimental study. The goal was to see if they could increase the IQ of students through educational interventions at a young age. Researchers recruited 123 “high-risk” children, a designation they based on IQ and income, to participate.  Half of the group received an enriched preschool program. The other half was a control group, and received no intervention.

In the decades since the program, researchers have tracked participants and found the program's impact extended far beyond IQ. The project's participants had significant differences from the control group in arrest rates, graduation rates, and general well-being throughout their lifetimes. 

Those effects now seem to be showing up in the children of participants as well. Researchers at the University of Chicago found children who had a parent in the Perry Preschool Project were less likely to be suspended, more likely to graduate, and more likely to be employed full-time. Baulos says that is likely connected to the fact that they grew up in more stable and well-resourced households.

“These children were three times more likely to grow up in a two-parent household. And when we look at male children of male participants, they were actually 15 times more likely to grow up in a two-parent households,” Baulos explained.

Baulos says she believes that the program’s teachers made a significant difference in the outcome of the study. These teachers went beyond the normal role of preschool educators. The project involved home visits, where teachers would interact with children and parents. They showed parents how to engage with their children, and encouraged them to work and play with them outside of school.

“These were really thoughtful teachers that were really focused on the child development,” Baulos explained.

The project also produced significant financial savings for the public, including an estimated $171,473 in crime costs. The total bill for the Perry Preschool Project was $15,166, and Baulos says the overall return ended up being $12.90 for every dollar invested.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said that she wants to provide high-quality free preschool to all four-year-olds in Michigan by the end of her first term.  But Baulos says that a universal program might not be the best way to invest publicly-funded early childhood education resources. It’s more effective, Baulos says, to target disadvantaged kids who otherwise would not have access to these kinds of programs.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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