As 3- and 4-year-olds, they couldn't have known that their lives would be fascinating to researchers for decades to come. But when the subjects of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study turned 40 recently, a tracker showed up again - just as when they had turned 19 and 27 - to find out about their jobs, families, and even run-ins with the law.
While many studies have shown preschool's short-term academic effects, this one offers a rare glimpse into how far-reaching the gains can be. Although it tracked just 123 students - at-risk African-Americans from Ypsilanti, Mich. - the half that were randomly assigned to a high-quality preschool program graduated high school at a higher rate and have had significantly better incomes and more stable personal lives than the half that had no preschool education (see chart, page 13).
Considered a gold standard by many education experts, the Perry study has helped build a national consensus about the need to give low-income children a boost before they start kindergarten. But controversy has raged over the quality of the federally backed Head Start program and preschool initiatives that now exist in about 40 states.
"Only 13 states require that preschool teachers have a bachelor's degree and early-childhood certification," says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Some Head Start programs use the High/Scope approach to teaching, but with low pay and high turnover the norm, most public programs don't come close to providing what the Perry kids received - including a low student-teacher ratio and weekly home visits.
As half a dozen states move beyond serving low-income children by committing to "universal" preschool, skeptics wonder how they expect to succeed when K-12 education is still struggling to improve quality. "It is a positively poor idea to expand downward the very system that is currently failing the kids," says Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.
But in a few states, at least, quality is the mandate as they get ready to expand preschool - by constitutional amendment in Florida, for instance, and by a court ruling in New Jersey.
Oklahoma has already implemented a plan for high-quality universal preschool. It is voluntary but open to students regardless of income, and about two-thirds of the state's 4-year-olds participate. Oklahoma not only requires that lead teachers be college educated and certified, but it pays them the same rate as public school teachers.
Last week, Oklahoma officials released a study showing strong results. "It appears they are very definitely getting pre-K right," says William Gormley, coauthor of the study and a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. He measured gains beyond what would have occurred if children had simply aged for one year without preschool - including a 52 percent gain in letter and word recognition, 27 percent in spelling, and 21 percent in pre-math skills.
"It's a more rigorous and smart design than is usually used to evaluate state preschool," Mr. Barnett says. And Oklahoma for the first time offers a large sample of middle-class children. Students who didn't qualify for a free lunch showed smaller but still significant gains in everything but the pre-math skills.
The Oklahoma example is encouraging, but universal preschool shouldn't necessarily be the priority right now, says Amy Wilkins, executive director of the Trust for Early Education in Washington. "We see preschool as primarily a mechanism to close the school-readiness gap between low-income kids and more affluent kids. In a time of scarce resources you go where the crisis is greatest, and we need to vastly improve the quality of the state preschool programs that exist now [for disadvantaged children]."
Thanks to the Perry study, many child advocates say, there's a strong cost/benefit argument for investing more to create high-quality programs. Barnett, an economist, calculated that for every dollar invested in the Perry Preschool program, there was a $17.07 return to society.
The bulk of this return came from lower rates of imprisonment (by age 40, 28 percent of preschool participants had been sentenced to a prison term, compared with 52 percent of the control group). The measure also included taxes on participants' higher earnings and savings from reduced reliance on public assistance.
"Increasingly people want to know why we are spending tax money the way we're spending it, and ... what's the impact of education on our global competitiveness and our quality of life," Barnett says. "To have a data set where you aren't just statistically estimating what those consequences are - you actually followed people long enough to see it - that makes it more persuasive for policymakers."
Finding those 123 people over the years certainly hasn't been easy. "We told our tracker that we would pay him more for finding the last 25 percent [of the group] because we knew it was going to be harder - and sometimes it's just miraculous if you find somebody," says Lawrence Schweinhart, president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti. Seven of the subjects are no longer living, but only four couldn't be found.
The Perry findings focused on disadvantaged children, but some children who have "a rich source of cognitive and linguistic achievement at home" might actually lose ground in a preschool setting, Ms. Olsen argues. Some countries that outpace the US on achievement tests actually start to teach reading much later than age 5, she says, so she doesn't see the point in pushing to start school at 3 or 4.
But Wilkins says the reality of single parenthood and two-income families in America moves the discussion past the debate over home versus preschool. "Eighty percent of 4-year-olds are out of their homes now," she says. "The real question is, are we going to make these programs high-quality enough to really enhance kids' academic skills prior to entering school."