The goal of the Perry Preschool Project is to improve disadvantaged children’s capacity for future success in school and in life. The intervention seeks to break the link between childhood poverty and school failure by promoting young children’s intellectual, social, and physical development. By increasing academic success, the Perry Preschool Project is designed to improve employment opportunities and earning potential and to decrease crime, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency later in life.
The target population was African American children ages 3–4 who were living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk for school failure.
The program consists of a 30-week school year. During that year, there is a daily 2½-hour classroom session and a weekly 1½-hour home visit for each child. The home visits are a way to involve the mother in the educational process and enable her to provide her child with support. Teachers also help mothers deal with any problems that arise during the home visits. There is about a ½ hour of preparation for teachers before the initial home visit to figure out how to extend and replicate the classroom experiences to the home setting. Teachers organize group meetings of mothers and fathers with children in the program.
The school curriculum, originally called the “Cognitive-Oriented Curriculum” and currently named the “HighScope Curriculum,” emphasizes an open approach to learning, where children are active participants. There is a consistent daily routine within the classroom, which involves a “plan–do–review” sequence of learning activities. Children’s cognitive and social skills are built and supported through individualized teaching and learning. Children are encouraged to engage in play activities that involve making choices and solving problems that contribute to their intellectual, social, and physical development. These components of the program are heavily influenced by research in child, educational, and developmental psychology, which notes that children’s innate curiosity and exploration should be incorporated into a formal learning environment. As such, lesson plans are constructed around developmental goals and incorporate the needs and interests of individual children. Teachers structure lesson plans and activities around key experiences. These key experiences are:
- Creative representation
- Language and literacy
- Social relations and personal initiative
- Movement and music
- Classification (detecting similarities and differences)
- Seriation (creating series and patterns)
- Number, space, and time
Within each one of these key experiences are more specific objectives and activities. For example, creative representation includes the following:
- Recognizing objects by sound, touch, taste, and smell
- Imitating actions and sounds
- Relating pictures, photographs, and models to real places and things
- Role play and pretending
- Making models out of clay or blocks
- Drawing and painting
These activities are incorporated into a consistent structure of child-planning time, work time, cleanup time, recall time, snack time, small-group time, outdoor time, and circle time. Within this structure of events, if specific children need more instruction with an activity, they receive it.
The core belief of the Perry Preschool Project is that strong preschool programs can help children in poverty by providing them a better start in life and helping them break the cycle of poverty. The underlying assumption is that family poverty and its associated hardships leads to poor intellectual performance in school, which then instills a negative disposition toward learning and further failure in school. Children of poor families are at a greater risk for special education or remedial classes; they frequently do not perform at grade level. This may lead to disengagement from school and, for many students, dropping out of school and risks for delinquency. Without a solid educational foundation, as adults, these children are often unqualified for higher paying jobs and may be at increased risk for criminal behavior.
The Perry Preschool Project intervenes early in a child’s life to affect their attitude and disposition toward school and learning. It is believed that changing a child’s attitude toward education is more important and has longer-lasting effects than focusing on immediate improvements in school achievement. Early success and encouragement may engender higher motivation, better performance, and a higher regard for teachers, classmates, and education in general.
Schweinhart, Barnes, and Weikart (1993) reported findings from a follow-up evaluation that looked at the sample of children from the HighScope Perry Preschool study originally conducted from 1962 to 1965. Researchers collected follow-up data annually when the children were between the ages of 3 and 11, and then at ages 14, 15, and 19. This report includes the study findings collected when the sample of children reached age 27.
Children were initially identified after a fall survey, conducted each year from 1962 to 1965. Project staff created pairs of children matched on initial Stanford–Binet IQ tests, and randomly assigned each pair to one of two undesignated groups. Then they exchanged several similarly ranked pair members so the two groups would be matched on socioeconomic status, intellectual performance, and percentage of boys and girls. Once the two groups were identified, they were randomly assigned, through the flip of a coin, to either the program condition or no-program condition.
The total number of study participants was 123. Fifty-eight children were assigned to the program group; 65 were assigned to a control group that did not participate in a preschool program. They were all ages 3 and 4, African American, and of low socioeconomic status. They had low IQ scores (between 70 and 85, the range for borderline mental impairment), with no organic deficiencies (i.e., biologically based mental impairment), and were at high risk of failing school. Approximately 58 percent of the sample was male. There were no differences between the groups with regard to father absence, parent education level, family size, household density, or birth order.
Attrition in the sample was extremely low at each follow-up period. At the follow-up for this study, 95 percent of the original sample (117 out of 123) was interviewed, including 56 program group members and 61 control group members. The study participants were 60 percent male; their ages ranged from 26 to 30 at the time of the interview, with an average age of 27.7 years.
The primary outcome of interests of the study included intellectual performance, school success, delinquent and criminal activity, socioeconomic success, and personal development. The age-27 data was collected from four sources: interviews with study participants, school records, crime records, and social service records. The study relied on chi-square analyses for simple comparisons of the program group with the control group without statistical adjustments to compensate for effects of background covariates.
Perry Preschool Project participants in the Schweinhart, Barnes, and Weikart (1993) study significantly outperformed their no-program peers in a range of educational measures, including various tests of intellectual and language performance from after the first preschool year up to age 7, a school achievement test at age 14, and a literacy test at age 19. By age 17, the program group had completed a significantly higher level of schooling than the no-program group (11.9 years versus 11.0). The group also had a significantly higher rate of regular high school graduation (66 percent versus 45 percent) and a nearly significant rate of regular high school graduation or the equivalent certification (71 percent versus 54 percent).
Delinquency and Crime
Delinquency and crime rates for the program group were significantly lower than for those in the no-program group. At the 27-year follow-up, the program group, compared with the no-program group, averaged a significantly lower number of lifetime (juvenile and adult) criminal arrests (2.3 arrests versus 4.6) and a significantly lower number of adult criminal arrests (1.8 arrests versus 4.0). There were significantly fewer program group members who were frequent offenders (arrested 5 or more times) by the time they were in the 27- to 32-years-old range, compared with the no-program group (7 percent versus 25 percent). Males in both groups were arrested more frequently than females, but, compared with no-program males, program males on average were arrested significantly fewer times over their lives (3.89 arrests versus 6.1, with 12 percent versus 49 percent arrested 5 or more times) and as adults (3.0 arrests versus 5.4, with 12 percent versus 43 percent arrested 5 or more times as adults).
At age 27, the program group, compared with the no-program group, had higher earnings. Specifically, the program group had significantly higher monthly earnings (mean of $1,219 versus $766, with 29 percent versus 7 percent earning $2,000 or more). The program group’s employment rate was noticeably, but not significantly, higher than that of the no-program group (71 percent versus 59 percent). The groups did not differ noticeably in rate of employment over the previous 5 years or in months of employment during the previous 2 years. Compared with the no-program group, the program group had fewer members who received social services in the previous 10 years.