The Indiana Legisla-ture likely will consider expanding statewide pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs for children at risk. Informing the discussion will be an extensively studied 1960s pre-K experiment, the Perry Program from Ypsilanti, Mich. Its findings suggest we re-examine a forgotten goal of early education.
In the Perry program, researchers assigned 123 3-year-old children from low-income black households to either a control group or a treatment group. Those in the treatment group participated in a two-year program that included five-day-a-week sessions and weekly home visits. Those in the control group had no contact with the program.
There have been 40 years of detailed follow-ups on the life outcomes of participants in both groups. Although those who participated in the pre-K program showed no increase in IQ, they did better in the job market, had better health behaviors and were less likely to engage in criminal activity than those who did not participate in the program.
Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman and colleagues offer additional evidence from the Perry data in a recent article in the American Economic Review. They conclude the impact the pre-K program had on reducing the students’ externalizing behaviors was the key factor in explaining the outcome differences.
“Reducing externalizing behaviors” is fancy social science jargon for increasing self-control. In other words, evidence from the most valid and reliable study shows the primary benefit of pre-K lies in its ability to increase a child’s skills in interacting with peers and teachers.
Learning to control one’s resentments, constrain one’s anger and follow the rules at age 4 seem to be a key to keeping a job, not committing a crime and staying off addictive substances at age 40. Interestingly, the Perry program intentionally emphasized self-control as one of its primary goals.