Targeted, high-quality early childhood education has the potential to help break the cycle of poverty, according to new research from HCEO Co-Director James J. Heckman and CEHD Predoctoral Fellow Ganesh Karapakula.

In their new HCEO working paper, Heckman and Karapakula examine the impact the influential Perry Preschool Project had on the children and siblings of the original participants. The Perry Preschool Project was an experimental program that provided preschool education and weekly home visits to socioeconomically and developmentally disadvantaged three- and four-year old African-American children in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the 1960s. “Intergenerational and Intragenerational Externalities of the Perry Preschool Project” offers the “first experimentally based evidence on the program’s spillover effects on the children and siblings of the participants.”

“For the first time, we have experimental evidence about how the case for early childhood propagates across generations,” Heckman says. “Not only is there a first-generation effect on the treatment group, but also there’s a second-generation effect.”

In order to study these effects, Heckman and Karapakula collected longitudinal data on the first generation of Perry participants, which included questions on their children and siblings. The authors note that while “the data on the children of the original participants are not nearly as rich as the data on the original participants,” it covered a variety of life domains and offers “a broad picture of the second generation’s outcomes, including school suspensions, arrests, addiction, teenage pregnancy, health, education, and employment.” The mean age of the children at the latest follow-up was about 28 years.

The paper notes that the children of program participants saw important increases across a range of educational and economic outcomes. The children of the treated participants were 30 percentage points more likely to have never been suspended, compared to their peers in the control group. They were also more likely to graduate from high school. As the authors write, this finding is particularly relevant “given that African-American students currently represent 38.7% of students suspended from public schools nationwide, even though they comprise only 15.5% of all public school students.” These children were also about 20 percentage points more likely to have never been arrested or suspended and were more likely to be employed full-time.

Impacts for the children of male participants was especially significant. Around 8 percent of the second-generation male children of these participants were employed college graduates compared to none in the control group. And about 26 percent were employed with some college experience, “while no such children exist in the untreated families,” the authors find.

While the paper does not analyze the causal mechanisms producing these effects, there is “suggestive evidence of enhanced environments for the children of original treated participants.” In a companion paper titled “The Perry Preschoolers at Late Midlife: A Study in Design-Specific Inference,” Heckman and Karapakula use conservative worst-case statistical methods and find that the parents, the original Perry participants, in the treatment group experienced “significant reductions in criminal activity, enhancements in earnings and employment, and better health, executive functioning, and socioemotional skills, compared to those in the control group.” Their children were more likely to grow up in stable, two-parent households. This finding is notable as the neighborhoods they grew up in were “no better and arguably worse than those of the children of control participants.” As the authors write, “This evidence suggests that family structure is likely more important than neighborhoods in accounting for the intergenerational treatment effects on the Perry families.”

“It seems like the universal ingredient is enhanced parent-child interaction,” Heckman says. “Getting the parent involved in the life of the child, however you do that, is a major factor towards children’s improved life outcomes.”

Heckman also notes that these findings are crucial to policy discussions around early childhood education. “There are ingredients of the Perry program that are highly relevant to today’s context,” he says, noting that about 30 percent of current Head Start programs are modelled on the Perry curriculum.

Another takeaway is the importance of targeting the most disadvantaged children, rather than a more universal approach. Heckman notes that more affluent children have significant benefits already. “We should really understand that the lesson from a lot of this research has been about targeting,” he says.

“This is really an important study,” Heckman says. Not only do high-quality, targeted preschool programs have significant benefits for the participants and thus a high social and economic return, but “actually the structure is such that the rate of return is likely to be even higher when we factor into account the next generation.”