Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Early Lessons
Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Evelyn Moore: I would do whatever we needed to do to prove that this many African American children were not retarded.
Fifty years ago, a group of people set out to prove that poor, black children could succeed in school.
Louise Derman-Sparks: We really want your kids to make it.
David Weikart: What could we supply that was missing for these kids that weren't doing well?
Their solution was preschool, and it worked.
Dudley Goodlette: It's about giving them a hand up early rather than a hand out later.
There's been a preschool revolution in America. But today's programs may not live up to the promises of the past.
I'm Stephen Smith. Over the coming hour, "Early Lessons" from American RadioWorks. First this news.
Faye Wright: Good morning Kayla, good morning D'Mariya.
Student: Ooh she looks pretty.
Smith: It's just after eight in the morning. We're in the preschool classroom at River Breeze Elementary School in Palatka, Fla., which is in the sort of northeastern part of the state. Children are being dropped off by their parents. Very rainy morning this morning, so there are a lot of wet raincoats and backpacks. But they put them in their cubbies, get right down to a game with their teacher Ms. Faye.
Wright: Let's see what letters La'ron has on his board.
Student: 'F,' 'F ...'
Wright: This is an 'F' for ...
This classroom represents an enormous change in American education that's been going on recently. A whole new grade is being added to the American child's educational career, the year pre-kindergarten, preschool. Time was when most four- and five-year-olds were at home or maybe they went to a daycare. Now most children are in school. In fact here in Florida, voters actually changed the state constitution to say that every four-year-old has the right to a preschool education.
Students: 'J.' Juh, juh, juh.
Students: Ah, ah, ah.
Wright: Why is this red?
Students: It's a vowel.
Wright: Because it's a vowel. Let's name our vowels.
Students: 'A,' 'E,' 'I,' 'O,' 'U,' and sometimes 'Y.'
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Early Lessons." I'm Stephen Smith. So how did this happen? How did preschool become so big in America? The answer is research. Preschool is perhaps the most researched idea in all of education. But it kind of came about by accident. To find out how preschool in this country started, you've got to go back about 50 years and learn about a man who had no experience, and frankly no interest in early childhood education, but needed to solve a problem. Here's producer Emily Hanford with the rest of the story.
[Music: Summertime - Booker T and the MGs - The Best Of ... - Rhino Atlantic]
Emily Hanford: This story begins in 1958 in Ypsilanti, Mich., a small city outside of Detroit. Back then, all of the African American children in Ypsilanti went to one segregated elementary school - the Perry School. A teacher from that time says it was the only school in the city that had no playground, just a dusty field filled with thistles and thorns. And here's what happened in 1958; a young graduate student came along and noticed how badly a lot of students at this school were doing. His name was David Weikart and he was new on the job as director of special education for the Ypsilanti Public Schools. No one was talking about achievement gaps back then. But it was so obvious to Weikart. Most white students in the school system were doing fine, but a lot of African American students were repeating grades, dropping out, and being assigned to special education - so it was his job to help them. And he thought to himself ...
David Weikart: Does it have to be this way? What could we supply that was missing for these kids that weren't doing well?
Weikart thought there was something wrong with the schools if one group of students was doing badly while another group was doing fine. But most people didn't see it this way. They thought there was something wrong with the children.
Evelyn Moore: Educable, mentally retarded.
That's the label that a lot of poor, black children got, says Evelyn Moore. She was a special education teacher. She says students ended up in her class because they scored low on IQ tests.
Moore: You know at that time, once you had an IQ test, you had the IQ.
She says people believed deeply in the idea of IQ. Everyone was born with a certain amount of intelligence - a quotient - it was genetic, fixed for life. Education wasn't going to change it. But Moore says some of her students weren't really retarded.
Moore: They know all the baseball players, they know all the words to these songs, so they can learn to read.
Moore thinks some children were being shoved off to special ed because they had behavior problems. And too many were black kids from poor families. That bothered special education director David Weikart, because once students were put in special ed, no one really expected them to learn much. They were pretty much doomed to failure. Weikart wanted to do something to help those kids succeed. So he went to a meeting of school principals armed with charts showing how poorly African American students were doing. When he was done with his presentation, nobody said anything; some of the principals went to the window for a smoke, one just sat there, arms crossed tightly; others left the room. Eventually they returned. They said there was nothing they could do. The children were just born that way.
Weikart describes this scene in his memoir. He died in 2003. This interview is from a video made the summer before he died.
Weikart: So from that, I decided - well, how could I affect these kids? And help kids do better in school? Because I couldn't change the schools. And that was then, well, obviously you do it before school.
So, preschool. Now this was a radical idea in 1958. Some families who could afford it sent their children to nursery school - but nursery school focused on learning how to play and share. Weikart wanted to create a real school for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Weikart: There was no evidence that it would be helpful. There wasn't data.
But Weikart had a hunch that early environments really matter. He thought poor, black children weren't learning the kinds of things that were on IQ tests at home. School wasn't helping them develop their skills either. So Weikart set out to invent a new kind of school; not just a school just for 3- and 4- year-olds, but a school that would finally give African American children a chance.
When teacher Evelyn Moore heard that a man in Ypsilanti was setting up a program to help poor black children with low IQs, she called him up. And he hired her.
Moore: I was passionate. I would do whatever we needed to do to prove that this many African American children were not retarded.
When Evelyn Moore moved to Ypsilanti in the summer of 1962, it was a segregated city. White people lived on the north side. A lot of them worked at nearby universities and had good jobs in the auto industry. African Americans lived on the south side, in the neighborhood around the Perry School. They worked as janitors, domestics, store clerks - if they could find jobs at all. There was a lot of unemployment, a lot of poverty. But it was a safe neighborhood, Evelyn Moore remembers that. Everyone knew each other. And in the summer of 1962 Moore and three other teachers fanned out into the neighborhood, looking for children for the preschool.
Moore: Knocking on doors, knocking on doors; I don't believe we had a script.
Louise Derman-Sparks: Many people wouldn't open the door to me. I think they thought I was a social worker or a government worker.
This is teacher Louise Derman-Sparks.
Derman-Sparks: Gradually word got around that the four of us were recruiting children for a preschool program.
And then it wasn't a hard sell.
Moore: Because many of these children, I don't know how many, their sisters and brothers were in special education. So their mothers knew, they knew what could happen, and so they saw this as an opportunity.
Moore says she clearly remembers two things about going into people's homes during that summer of '62. The first is how dark the homes were; lights were low, shades were drawn. She thinks it had to do with the way people felt. But the other thing she remembers is that in almost every home, there were two pictures on the wall: John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Moore: That was noticeable to me, and I guess they represented hope at that time for people. And in terms of the project I think the young kids represented that hope too, to parents. I mean that, they may have to give up on the older kids, but here's a new possibility.
[MUSIC: A Change is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come - ABKCO]
The first day of the Perry Preschool was in October of 1962. The teachers had plans for cooking, painting, digging in the dirt. This was not going to be a school where children had to sit quietly and take directions from a teacher. They were going to do projects and experiments. They were going to get messy. And on that first day of school, the children arrived, holding their mother's hands, all dressed up in their Sunday best.
Moore: These people were sending them to school you see, and when you're in school, you look like you're going to school.
The mothers were beaming. They thought their children had been chosen, says Moore. But in fact, it was totally random who ended up in the preschool because this whole project was set up as an experiment; an experiment to see whether preschool could help children do better. So it needed a study group that went to preschool and a control group that didn't. Study director David Weikart and his research team flipped a coin - literally - and half the children were in the preschool, the other half stayed home.
It's hard to know exactly what the Perry Preschool was like. There are no photographs, no films from the early days. This sound is from a film made in the 1970s. It shows children sitting down for snack, chatting. But it was nothing like this in the beginning. Evelyn Moore says the children barely spoke at all, because in their families, children weren't supposed to talk much.
Moore: The children who were quiet and disciplined were considered smart in some ways. You know, he's a good child, he's a quiet child.
This idea - that children should be seen and not heard - it's an old and powerful belief. And it's a practical parenting tool if you're a poor single mother living in a small apartment with a bunch of kids. That's how a lot of the Perry children grew up. The teachers wanted to change that, and they believed language was the key to opening up their minds, and their possibilities.
Moore: Tell me what you did last night. Talk to me about what your mommy did yesterday.
These are the kinds of questions teachers would ask to get the children talking. Moore says it took her a while to learn how to do this.
Moore: Having been trained as an elementary teacher, it's like, "This is right and that's wrong," you know. "These are answers."
But what she realized is that when you talk to children this way, they don't say much.
Moore: If you give them just "Tell me what color this is?" "It's red." That's the end of that.
So the idea at Perry was to ask the children open-ended questions; what did they think, what were they curious about? The teachers were trying to help the children understand ...
Moore: ...that it's OK to talk about what they know, and that they do know things.
[Music: Crayon - Manitoba & Koushik - Up In Flames - Leaf]
Derman-Sparks: We wanted to open up the world to the kids. We wanted them to know that the world was there, and they had a right to be in it. We used to take them to the library.
Louise Derman-Sparks says they went on a lot of field trips.
Derman-Sparks: These were kids who'd never left their neighborhood.
They took the kids to the fire station, a farm. Moore remembers a trip to an apple orchard.
Moore: We picked the apples, we brought them back ...
And they made applesauce. It was a science lesson to show how apples change when they're cooked.
Moore: Then the brilliant idea struck us: let's take the children back to the apple orchard in winter.
It was cold, the trees were bare.
Moore: And I can remember very vividly saying '"Well, where did the apples go? Well what do you think happened to the apples?" And one of the kids looked at me and said, "Teacher, I didn't take 'em.' " So, you know, there went all the big concepts we were teaching because already kids thought, "I'm being accused of something."
[Music: Summertime - Booker T and the MGs - The Best Of ... - Rhino Atlantic]
And what the teachers really wanted the children to know is that there wasn't anything wrong with them; they weren't bad, they weren't stupid. And they could succeed. But it wasn't just about inspiring them. The teachers were also thinking about those IQ tests. They did a lot of reading, writing stories, puzzles, games. The teachers were focusing on cognitive development - stimulating children's brains, getting them to think and figure things out. And they did it all through hands-on activities and play. Teacher Louise Derman-Sparks says they played lots of records, and did a lot of dancing too.
Derman-Sparks: That's how I learned how to dance a whole lot of things I didn't know before!
[Music: The Loco-Motion - Little Eva - The Loco-Motion - Rhino]
The Perry Preschool teachers say they had fun. What they were doing was exciting and new. But some things were hard. The children's families were very poor. Sometimes they didn't have enough money to pay their bills. And the teachers wondered if they should be helping them. But the researchers said no. There could be no other intervention. This was an experiment to test the effects of preschool, not financial assistance.
Something else that was hard for the teachers was less tangible. It was the very nature of what they were doing. The premise of their preschool was that children were not learning enough at home; they needed an enriched environment to bring them up to speed. Implicit in this idea seemed the notion that poor, black families were doing something wrong.
Derman-Sparks: The reason the kids weren't doing well is that their homes were not giving them the culture that they needed to succeed in school.
Derman-Sparks says it seemed like kind of a racist idea. But part of her job was to visit the kids' parents at home-every week-and teach them, too.
Derman-Sparks: The curriculum that we were supposed to follow for their parents was to bring a whole bunch of learning materials and show the parents how to support their children's cognitive development. So we'd sort of bring this big sack of stuff and the parents were supposed to watch us doing cognitive kind of one-on-one activities with the kids.
Things like matching games and memory games. Derman-Sparks says it was kind of awkward sometimes. She remembers her first visit to a boy who lived with his grandmother and teenage mother.
Derman-Sparks: And went up these rickety stairs to this house that was behind the church and I knock on the door and the mother who is the teenager answers it. And it was one of these railroad apartments you know so you could see right into the kitchen. And the grandmother was cooking on the stove and I hear her saying, Oh shit, is she here?! So, I didn't feel exactly welcomed. And frankly I could really sympathize with her. You know, she had been working all day on her feet and now she was trying to get dinner on the table and I'm coming in with my little sack of toys.
Derman-Sparks says she learned to put her sack of toys aside and just sit in the kitchen with the grandmother. They'd have a cup of coffee or Kool-Aid, and talk. Looking back, Derman-Sparks says she thinks the real purpose of the home visits was to send a message to the families.
Derman-Sparks: We are your children's teachers; we were their first teachers in school, and we think your kids are great. And we really want your kids to make it.
But making it was going to be all about those IQ tests. That was the bottom line. Would two years in preschool be enough to boost their scores, and prevent them from failing in school?
[Song: "Lift Up Your Voice"]
When the Perry Preschool began, it was radical, and new. But preschool was in the air. Other programs were starting up all over the country. This sound is from Mississippi. A new generation of educators and activists was embracing preschool as a way to help poor children, and a way to fight poverty itself. And in May of 1965, preschool went big.
President Lyndon Johnson: On this beautiful spring day, it's good to be outside in the Rose Garden ...
President Lyndon Johnson announced a major new effort in his War on Poverty; a federal preschool program called Head Start.
President Johnson: I believe that this is one of the most constructive and one of the most sensible and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken ...
Johnson basically promised the nation that children who went to Head Start would be lifted out of poverty - because Head Start would make them "smarter." It would raise their IQs. But Perry Preschool teacher Louise Derman-Sparks worried there was too much riding on those IQ tests. She says they didn't seem to do a very good job measuring what her students knew.
Derman-Sparks: We had these puzzles that were called "go together" puzzles you know, where you had like a Bingo card with six pictures and then you had separate picture cards and you were supposed to put what goes with each thing. And one of the children that I had kept putting a toothbrush on the refrigerator picture. Now on an IQ test, he would lose six months intelligence.
But what she knew from visiting this child at home was that toothbrushes did go with refrigerators; his mother put them there to keep them away from cockroaches.
Derman-Sparks: So what was actually on her part an act of resilience, hurt her son's IQ.
[Music: Can't Get Next to You - The Temptations - The Ultimate Collection - Motown]
IQ gains were the promise though, and people wanted to know: does preschool work? The Perry teachers and researchers were anxious. Everything they'd done with their students: would it all add up to IQ gains? And it did. After just one year in preschool, the average IQ score went up 15 points. That's a big jump - enough to keep many children out of special education - and that was the goal. The early results from Head Start showed IQ gains too. All over the country, there was a lot of excitement about preschool. But then in 1969, something happened.
Archival news report tape: The Office of Economic Opportunity today made public a study showing that poor children who took part in the Head Start program did not get much out of it ...
The report was called the "Westinghouse Study of Head Start." It became synonymous with the term "fade out." The initial IQ gains from preschool faded out. By third grade, the IQ scores of children who had gone to Head Start were no different from the scores of children who had not. Richard Nixon was now president. He supported Head Start during his campaign. But after the Westinghouse study was released, he wrote across the top of a memo: "No increase in any anti-poverty program until more research is in."
[Music: Gimme Shelter - The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed - ABKCO]]
Back in Ypsilanti, Mich., the Perry researchers were finding fade out too. The high hopes that preschool could really change things for poor, black children seemed like a misguided dream from another era. But then study director David Weikart started to notice something interesting. The children who'd gone to preschool were doing a little better in school. Their IQs were no higher, they were no "smarter" than their peers, but they were having fewer problems; not getting in trouble as much, not as likely to be in special education. And then in the late 1970s the Perry team got a big surprise. This is researcher Larry Schweinhart.
Larry Schweinhart: We were still phoning into the main frame at the University of Michigan and you'd stick the phone in the little cradle and everything. And we'd get these big long pages of printouts and ...
The computer was spitting out results from achievement tests the study participants took when they were 14. And Schweinhart couldn't believe what he was seeing: significant differences in the scores. These were not IQ tests that supposedly measure how smart you are. These were achievement tests that evaluate more directly what a student has learned in school - and the students who'd gone to preschool did better on these tests.
Schweinhart: And we also at that time we did not find any differences in IQ. So you've got the IQ test, no difference and the achievement test, big difference. Bigger than ever difference.
This was puzzling. The assumption had always been that raising IQ was the key to helping children achieve in school. The smarter you are, the better you do. And here was evidence to the contrary. And get this: one reason the preschool students did better on achievements tests? They were more likely to finish their tests. The students who had not gone to preschool left more questions blank. They didn't even try.
Schweinhart: In fact I remember writing a little line in the front of the first report that I wrote, "The most important thing you learn in a place is how hard to try." And it struck me as I was looking at the data, that the kids who had had the preschool program experience were trying harder.
This got the researchers thinking - maybe what preschool did wasn't really about IQ? Maybe the children who went to preschool were doing better because they cared more about school? The researchers wanted more evidence, so when the students were in high school, they interviewed them, they interviewed their parents, they collected teacher ratings and report cards. And here's what they found: the students who went to preschool got higher grades; they spent more time on their homework; they were more likely to say school was important to them. Their parents had better attitudes toward their children's education. And when it came to graduating from high school, preschool made a difference - for the girls in particular. Overall, 67 percent of the preschool group graduated from high school, while only 45 percent of the comparison group did. And IQ had nothing to do with it. Being smart in the way people had traditionally defined it wasn't what really mattered for the Perry children. The researchers wanted to know more - what would happen to the kids after high school? So they hired Van Loggins.
Van Loggins: [Door knocking] Hey. What you want Van? Ah, we gotta get together and do this interview.
Van Loggins was a coach at Ypsilanti High School. He lived in the Perry neighborhood. When the researchers approached him about the job, he hesitated.
Loggins: Because any time white folks want to study black folks, I'm apprehensive.
But eventually he agreed because he thought maybe some good would come from the study, change things for African American children. Loggins interviewed all of the study participants: the ones who went to preschool, and the ones who didn't.
Loggins: Did interviews in cars, in airports, you know, just, dope houses ...
Loggins say the Perry neighborhood had changed. When he started doing interviews in the '80s, the neighborhood was rough, desperate. He says crack cocaine hit the area hard.
Loggins: You know, gun stuck in my face - "Who's that, oh, that's the coach? Hey man, put that down, what's the matter with you man? What's up coach, I'm sorry about that man." "Hey man, you better check your boy man, quick draw McDraw!" Then they started laughing and stuff, and I'm in!
Loggins first interviewed the study participants when they were 19 - and again when they were 27 and 40. This is one of the things that makes the Perry Study significant; it followed people for such a long time. The other thing is the way it was set up, with children randomly assigned to a study group or control group. This is the gold standard in scientific research. And by the time the study participants were 40 years old there were big differences between the two groups. The people who'd gone to preschool were doing much better - in life. They were more likely to be employed; they made more money. They were more likely to own homes, cars, to have savings accounts. The men who'd gone to preschool were more involved in raising their children. And the biggest difference of all had to do with crime. The people who had not gone to preschool were twice as likely to have been arrested by the age of 40. Here's researcher Larry Schweinhart.
Schweinhart: It's just very difficult to find anything that will reduce crime. And here's a program that took place way before the crime and reduced it.
The Perry results got a lot of attention. And there were several other studies now too. They all show that preschool has significant, long-term benefits. But those benefits weren't necessarily showing up on tests. And the public debate about preschool in the '80s and '90s was all about test scores and fade out. There were huge fights about Head Start in Congress and many politicians asked: What's the point of spending taxpayer money on preschool if IQ gains don't last? But Larry Schweinhart says, what's the point of education: To do better on a test, or do better in life?
Schweinhart: I've sometimes felt like a prospector coming down from the hills and saying, "Hey we found gold up there." And everybody is busy doing whatever they're doing, they say, "We don't have any time to look for the gold." "Yeah, but there's gold, why don't you go get the gold. All you've got to do is go there and you can find the gold."
[Music: Can I Get A ... - Jay Z - Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life - Roc-A-Fella]
Now it's not like no one was buying the idea of preschool - quite the opposite. By the late 1990s a lot of American children were going. But a new kind of opportunity gap was emerging. Many families couldn't afford to send their children to preschool. And a group of preschool advocates said, "This is a problem. Look at all the research; every child should be able to go to preschool. Preschool should be a new grade in school, just like kindergarten." But this was not going to be an easy sell. It would cost billions of dollars. Governors and state lawmakers were going to have to buy into the idea of preschool in a big way.
Arthur Rolnick: My name is Arthur J. Rolnick.
This is the guy who convinced a lot of them.
Rolnick: I am senior vice-president and director of research here at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Rolnick was an unlikely candidate to be the next big advocate for preschool. He's an economist, and his expertise is pre-Civil War banking. But as a senior VP at a regional fed he goes to a lot of community meetings and in 2002 he found himself at a lunch for an organization called "Ready for Kindergarten."
Rolnick: Their executive director was making a pitch for more money for early childhood development, basically making it on a moral argument, that it's the right thing to do. And, um I naively raised my hand and said I thought that that argument wasn't going to take you very far.
Because there are all kinds of good things to spend money on. But Rolnick says to survive, every good idea needs an economic argument. And he thought maybe there was an economic argument to be made for preschool. He'd heard of the Perry Study. Economists had analyzed it already and showed that Perry ended up saving society a lot of money, because of reduced crime costs in particular.
Rolnick: But nobody had asked a very basic question that business people would ask or economists would ask. In today's dollars, Perry Preschool invested $10,000 a year for two years so that's a $20,000 investment. And we asked a very basic question: What was the return on the investment?
He was looking for the kind of number you see on a 401k statement. What are you making every year off your investment? He and a colleague decided to calculate what that would be for the Perry Preschool. They compared what Perry cost to what the school system saved on special education, what the government earned from tax revenue due to higher earnings, and all that money saved on crime. Then they translated that to a bottom line: how much did the taxpayers make every year off that initial investment? The number they came up with? Sixteen percent.
Rolnick: That's well above what you can get in the stock market. That's well above most venture capitalists would view as a very high rate of return. And we would argue it's a very safe rate of return. That invested this way it's almost a guaranteed return.
Rolnick and his colleague published their finding in a regional fed newsletter. It immediately caught the attention of economists, business people - and politicians. And the preschool movement was transformed. Ten years ago, a conference about the benefits of preschool would have attracted educators, liberals, a lot of women. Now, it's a lot of men in suits.
Dudley Goodlette: I think this is totally not a partisan issue and shouldn't be. It's about educating our children. It's about raising our children. It's about giving them a hand up early rather than a hand out later.
Dudley Goodlette is at a preschool conference for business leaders being held at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Goodlette is a Republican and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives where he was primary sponsor of the legislation that changed the state constitution to give every child the right to preschool. Goodlette says the economic argument is key to convincing people like him. At this conference, the conversation is not about test scores and fade out; it's about the bottom line.
Stephen Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary "Early Lessons." I'm Stephen Smith.
So the push is on to expand preschool, to make it a whole new grade in a child's educational career. States have nearly doubled their spending on preschool in the past five years. The hope is that today's children will get what the Perry children got. But will they? Are today's preschools really living up to the promise? Coming up ...
Wright: We just had a curriculum and we went about doing it. Now we pay more attention to what we teach and why we teach it I would say. When you know why you doing something you will do it better.
For more on this story, including all the results of the Perry Study and a look at the debate over IQ, visit our web site, americanradioworks.org.
Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute, the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Batteninstitute.org.
Early Lessons will continue in a moment, from American Public Media.
Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Early Lessons." I'm Stephen Smith and this hour we are talking about what may be the biggest, the fastest expansion of public education in American history: Preschool. We're in a preschool, a pre-kindergarten classroom at River Breeze Elementary in Palatka, Fla. Kids are broken up into their small groups here and there's a bunch of kids over here writing on erasable white boards.
Boy: "S." This spells shark.
Smith: Alright. Are you ready for me to draw a shark here? Alright. Let's see, what do sharks have?
Boy and girl: Teeth!
Smith: Teeth, yeah there you go. So there's a shark with teeth. Does that look kind of like a shark?
Girl: Shark airplane.
Smith: It looks like a shark airplane.
Boy: Fish! Can you help me write a fish?
Smith: Do you want me to help you write a fish or draw a fish?
Smith: What does a fish look like? Kind of like a round heart, and then a triangle for a tail, and then there's an eye, and here I'm going to make some bubbles coming out of his mouth. Yeah, you kids are learning stuff in preschool I didn't learn until I was in sixth grade.
Boy: It doesn't have any fin.
Girl: This is pre-K.
Smith: This is pre-K. You're right. You guys are in pre-K
Girl: There's a lot of bubbles in his mouth.
Ms. Monica: Good job for recognizing that Lamontiaz, the word changed up on you guys. Let's read it again, Shae. Let's do that again.
Students: The bear jumped out.
Ms. Monica: Alright.
Smith: Now we've talked about the famous study at the Perry school in Michigan and about the impact that program had on the kids who went there. Well, here in Palatka, Fla., and in communities across the country, everyone - from educators to parents, policy-makers, business people - everyone wants the kind of results that were achieved at the Perry Preschool. The question is - are we setting up preschool programs that will get those results? Here's Emily Hanford with the rest of that story.
Hanford: Voters here in Florida made a bold a few years ago when they changed their state constitution to give every child the right to come to preschools like this. But as the state races to set up more preschools, experts say Florida is setting up a lot of preschools that aren't very good. And they're not at all like the Perry Preschool.
Jo Hudson: We've worked with teachers who were in front of the room all the time, kids were sitting in tables all the time, she was doing all the talking all the time.
That's Jo Hudson. She says preschool students in Florida are doing lots of worksheets, tracing their names over and over again. Preschool's starting to look more and more like school. And Hudson says research from the Perry Preschool and other early childhood programs shows that preschool should be different. So she's heading up a project in northeastern Florida to change preschool. She got a $4 million grant from the federal government to do it. And she and her colleagues are using the money to help preschool teachers better understand why preschool is important, and what the research says about what works.
Sandy Lewis: So what we're going to do first is I want you to think about the lesson itself. So this is on page 53, so if you'll turn to page 53 ...
Here in Palatka four preschool teachers are in a classroom. But they're not teaching, they're learning.
Lewis: What are we wanting the children to take away from this lesson?
Most preschool teachers don't get this kind of training - they're handed a curriculum guide, and they're pretty much on their own.
Faye Wright: We just had a curriculum and we just went about doing it.
This is Faye Wright - the teacher whose class we've been visiting.
Wright: Now we pay more attention to what we teach and why we teach it I would say. When you know why you doing something you will do it better.
Lewis: Let's think about what is it that they're going to do. What's the fun part, the hands-on, the activity of this lesson?
Sandy Lewis is the teacher's teacher. She says hands-on learning is a big focus here. Research shows that young children learn more from active experiences than from worksheets and formal lessons. And so she's encouraging the teachers to shake things up. Put children in small groups, let them do more on their own. It begins with rearranging their classrooms. Teacher Faye Wright.
Wright: Well now we have seven centers, seven identified areas that teach children different things. We didn't have that before. We didn't have a science center.
They didn't really think about teaching science. It was 'write your name, know your numbers and your ABCs. Then take a break, go play.' And when the children went off to play, the teachers went to their desks to plan lessons. But what the teachers say they're learning is that children learn best through play, and through the interactions they have with each other, and their teachers.
Wright: So now when they go to centers we are in the centers with them. We have been taught we need to be everywhere that they are, in order to hold that conversation with them. So now when they go to centers we are in the centers with them. It is their time to play but it's also time for us to talk to them about what they're doing.
A goal of this program is to remind teachers that preschool should be fun, get children excited about coming to school. Teacher Kutina Smith says she used to be kind of a drill sergeant. She laughs at herself now, and says she's amazed at how much her students seem to learn when they do things on their own - and how proud they are of their work.
Kutina Smith: Even if it's just a line and they never put a line on a paper, just a line, they are proud of that line, and they want to stick it on the wall. And that makes them want to go back over there and try to write something a little bit more. Which is what we want. And by drilling them, they get away from it. It makes them not want to do it. And I figure if you just let them go, just to see what they can do.
Tape: Can you say triceratops?
One reason Smith's so impressed with her students' progress is because the children in her class are considered developmentally delayed. They're headed for special education, just like the Perry children. And just like the Perry children, they're all from poor families. They come into school with many of the same challenges. The biggest thing ? They don't talk much. Here's Smith and another teacher Myrtle Hill.
Myrtle Hill: No one reads them stories. No one really talks to them.
Smith: No books in the house.
Hill: They hear the radio, they hear the TV.
Smith: They're in a household where there's nothing but a lot of young kids having kids. Language, well, all they can think of is coming home, making sure the kids are bathed, clothed. And that's it. Take care of this at the house. And as far as going out? Some of them haven't been across the bridge.
Smith is referring to a big bridge that spans the St. John's River and divides Palataka in two. Some of her students have never seen the wealthier side of the city. She says this program has helped her understand what a difference education can make for them. School is their opportunity to have access to a different world. Smith says it's incredible the way some of her students have changed.
Smith: Now, talking maybe more than I really want them to talk. But that's okay. And I have one baby just walking around just singing the ABC song cause she came to me doing nothing at all. Now she go home, her momma said, what did you do to her? She's walking around my house singing the ABC song, which she never did, she never heard her baby speak before.
Hanford: So how did that happen?
Smith: There's a part where feeling safe and comfortable to speak. Where in this environment, yes, you can talk. This is your area, this is your place, this is your room.
Six students in this program have made so much progress that instead of going to special education next year they'll be in regular classes. Test scores have gone up. But if history's any indication, those test score gains might not last.
Linda Hayes: We cant' put all of our eggs in one basket. We can't assume that investment in preschool inoculates children for what continues to happen as they move through school.
This is Lynda Hayes. She's an early education expert at the University of Florida and an advisor to the teacher-training program in Palatka. She thinks the debate about fade-out has put all the blame on preschool. But if you put a child in a good preschool and send her on to bad schools ...
Hayes: ...then the door that had opened for me begins to close. So I need support, yes, in getting ready for school if I am a child at risk, but I also need support as I move through school.
She thinks this is why those initial IQ gains faded out for the Perry children. They had a really good preschool experience. They had great teachers, they learned a lot. Then they went on to poor, segregated elementary schools. They didn't get the same kind of attention. Teachers were not focused on getting them to talk, opening up their minds, building their confidence. It was 'sit down, be quiet, do what the teacher tells you,' according to Perry Preschool teacher Louise Derman-Sparks. She says some of the children would come down to visit the preschool class after they'd gone to kindergarten, and they would complain. They didn't like kindergarten. She remembers one boy in particular.
Derman-Sparks: He came down everyday because he was so bored. He said it was much more interesting to be in the preschool.
Derman-Sparks says she finally had to tell him he couldn't keep coming down to the preschool. He had to get used to kindergarten.
[Music: Alphabet Scat - Lisa Yves - Jazz for Kids: Everybody's Boppin' - Dcc Compact Classics]
So preschool's not an inoculation. You can't send children to preschool and expect that to be enough. This is what advocates have been saying for years to defend against the charge of fade out. Preschool isn't about changing children they say. It's a first step in the long process of helping them get a better education. And that's the key to a better life. Education is the way out of poverty. The more education you have, the better you do. But, here's something interesting about the people who went to the Perry Preschool. Even the ones who did not graduate from high school ended up doing better in life. They did not get more education - but they were still better off. Why was that?
[Garage door opening]
This is where a garage in Ypsilanti, Mich., comes in.
Schweinhart: Let's see, this is a good one ...
Larry Schweinhart is now the president of the research organization that's been continuing the Perry Study all these years. He's giving me a tour of what's in this garage.
Schweinhart: There's tests. The Stanford-Binet tests that were given from age three through age nine here, there's a parent interview for age 15, another test ....
These are the original documents from the Perry Preschool Study. Most of this stuff is on hard drives now, but Schweinhart says researchers are pack-rats. They keep everything. And good thing they do because another researcher has come along with some new questions about the Perry Study. And he's looking for answers in all this original data.
James Heckman: My name is James Heckman. I'm a professor of economics here at the University of Chicago.
Jim Heckman is probably one of the world's most influential economists. He won a Nobel Prize. And he's really interested in the Perry Study because of what he sees as the fundamental paradox at its core. The people who went to the preschool were not smarter than their peers, but they did better in school. And they did not necessarily get more education, but they did better in life. And the assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that intelligence and education level are the keys to everything.
Heckman: So that's the miracle, but that's also the black box.
Why did the Perry Preschool children do better? That's what Heckman wants to figure out. So he's working with psychologists - something he never imagined - and together they're developing new ideas about what it is beyond smarts and diplomas that helps people become capable and successful. And here's what Heckman's learning.
Heckman: There are traits that seem to be somewhat different from just the raw ability to solve a problem.
Personality traits like...
Heckman: Perseverance, self-control, things like openness, agreeableness, extroversion ...
Heckman calls these non-cognitive skills. They're less a set of skills than a collection of traits and abilities that are not about how much you know or how fast you think. Heckman says we used to think of these traits as part of a person's character - sort of an old-fashioned notion that didn't get a lot of attention in economic theory. But a growing body of evidence from psychology suggests the development of cognitive ability itself is associated with personality traits, defined by psychologists as "patterns of thought, feelings and behavior."
Heckman: What we're coming to learn is that traits of young children like openness to experience, lack of shyness, some agreeableness even, will make the child much more ready to explore the environment. The act of exploration builds skills; it creates mental capacities, it gives you facts.
It's a dynamic process; the desire to learn, the drive, can't really be separated from learning itself, the process of becoming capable and intelligent. So if a child is discouraged from learning early in life, that can actually shut down the learning process. On the other hand, success in learning early on makes people want to learn more. The more they want to learn, the more they end up learning. Motivation is key.
Heckman: Now you're getting into something really deep. How is it that motivation is affected? What causes motivation? And that's something that I think we still don't really understand but I think what I do think we've found from these early interventions is they have affected the motivations of the children.
And here's the kicker. Motivation really matters when it comes to testing. The very tests that purport to measure how smart you are, or how much you know - these tests are time consuming, and hard. You need a reason to do well. Incentives make a difference.
Heckman: If I give a disadvantaged kid some M and M's for each correct answer on an IQ test, I can close big gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged kids by just incentive-izing that.
IQ remains a deeply divisive issue partly because people with high IQ scores typically do better in all kinds of ways. They get more education, they make more money. But what do IQ tests really measure? Heckman says one of the things they measure is motivation. How much effort are you willing to give? And so it raises the question: do people do well in life because they have high IQs? Or is the thing that helps you do well on an IQ test the same thing that helps you do well in life? Heckman thinks what matters more is motivation, perseverance, attitude; the "soft" stuff that he says schools tend to ignore these days because they're so focused on raising test scores.
Heckman: No Child Left Behind, the whole emphasis on cognitive skill testing is insane. I mean, it's really misdirected.
It's not that cognitive skills don't matter. They do. But Heckman says schools aren't paying enough attention to how students become skilled.
Heckman: Everyday we're creating people. And we can enrich that process or we can retard it. And so if we only focus on an aspect of it - it's true we may bring a long the non-cognitive component as an accident, but there are better ways to do it, to motivate. But the best way right now? I don't think we know. I don't think we know.
[Music: My Sweet Potato - Booker T and the MGs - The Best Of ... - Rhino Atlantic
But he does think preschool has something to do with it. He thinks the children who went to the Perry Preschool were changed by that experience. They didn't become smarter in the way everyone had hoped. But he thinks the preschool may have affected the development of their personalities. Going to Perry opened them up, gave them a kind of confidence, a willingness to try that their peers did not have. They all went on to the same poor schools - but the Perry Preschool kids got a little more out of it. And maybe it's that little more that made the difference. Or maybe they just kept trying harder, squeezing what they could from whatever opportunities came their way in life.
So, is this what happened? Did the people who went to preschool do better in life because they tried harder? I really wanted to ask them that question. But I couldn't. The researchers promised them anonymity, which is typical for a study like this. There's only one person who's talked to all of the study participants: Van Loggins.
Loggins: The race is to the first hurdle! Nine times out of ten the guy who gets to the first hurdle and is doing it right is gonna win that race ....
Loggins is still a coach, and he teaches African American history at a middle school in Ann Arbor, Mich. Today he's sitting on two stacked milk crates at the edge of a practice field, teaching the boys' track team how to hurdle.
Loggins: Clear the first hurdle and then it goes to the beat. Pom-pom, shhh. Pom-pom, shhh.
Loggins has done all of the interviews with the Perry Preschool participants since they were 19. He doesn't think they remember much about what the preschool was like, but he does say some of them mention the teachers.
Loggins: You would hear certain names come up, of a teacher that they really liked, and they took that with them.
Did they ever say that preschool changed their lives?
Loggins: Was it a one to one correlation of - you think you ended up having a doctorate cause you went to preschool? Ah, nobody's going to tell you that. But they'll tell you it didn't hurt. They will definitely tell you that.
One of the people who went to the Perry Preschool apparently did get a Ph.D. But he was the exception, not the rule. And this is something to keep in mind about the Perry Preschool. A lot of the excitement now is because of the money it saved society; children were not as likely to end up in special education, they were not as likely to go to prison. Their lives were improved. But is an improved life the same as a good one? The reality is: the Perry children started out in very poor families, in a segregated world where just about everything was stacked against them. And they did better. They were more likely to be employed. But at the age of 40, a quarter of them did not have jobs. And yes they made more money, but their median income was only $21,000 a year. And they were more likely to go to college, but only 9% of them got a degree. So one thing that seems pretty clear is that preschool - even when it's really good - is not enough to level the playing field for poor children.
Loggins: [Singing] Ooh, can turn a gray sky blue, I can make it rain whenever I want it to ....
The shadows are getting long on the track field. Van Loggins sings to himself while the boys finish up their drills. Loggins still lives in the Perry neighborhood and says he sometimes runs into the study participants on the street. They say, 'When you gonna come back and interview me man?' Loggins says, 'Whenever they call me.'
Loggins: It's like reading a good book and you got, like, almost to the end and you want to know: what happened? What happened to these people?
He may get a chance to find out. The Perry researchers thought their study was done, but now a health researcher wants to know if the people who went to preschool are healthier than the people who did not. And so it appears the Perry Preschool Study is not over. The researchers are making plans to collect more data and do another set of interviews.
Loggins: Oh, oh, like butter baby! Here we go, here we go, here we go. Ahh, ooh! You all must have had a great coach last year. That's must be where that came from. Uh-oh, uh-oh .Come on, come on, come on. Next man. Next man.
[Music: Can't Get Next to You - The Temptations - The Ultimate Collection - Motown]
Smith: The vast majority of American children go to preschool now. Some are in Head Start, others go to private preschools - and more and more attend neighborhood public schools, like the children in Palatka, Fla. That's a radical change from 50 years ago when David Weikart came up with the idea of the Perry Preschool.
But most of today's preschools don't come close to the quality of the Perry program. One expert we talked to estimates that only 30 percent of American children are in high quality preschools. He says teachers don't get enough training. And there's not enough money. Average state spending on preschool now is about 4,000 dollars a year per child. The Perry Preschool cost more than two-and-a-half times that. Experts say we'll have to make a much bigger investment in preschool if we expect the 16 percent return on investment that Perry achieved.
And something else is happening that troubles many advocates. The children who need preschool the most - poor, minority children that preschool was originally designed to help - there's evidence these children are the least likely to attend high quality preschools. So now that everyone knows how valuable preschool is, it appears that wealthy, white children are getting the most out of it. And poor, black children are being left behind once again.
You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Early Lessons." It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Frankie Barnhill, Craig Thorson and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Nancy Rosenbaum, Suzanne Pekow, and Marc Sanchez. I'm Stephen Smith.
To download a podcast of this program or a special e-book that Emily Hanford has written about the Perry Preschool visit our Web site: americanradioworks.org. There, you can also find our entire archive of more than 100 documentaries. americanradioworks.org.
Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute, the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Batteninstitute.org.Back