Preschool Makes Better Grownups

As you know if you have read this blog for any time at all, I listen to lots of audiobooks on my forty minute commute to Chatham each morning. But once in a while, I take a break and listen to podcasts instead.
If you are not sure what a podcast is, here’s a definition for you: it’s an audio file similar to a radio broadcast, which can be downloaded and listened to on a computer, mp3 player, mobile phone, or other properly equipped device.
In my case, I subscribe to several of these podcasts. On Saturdays I connect my iThingy to my computer and open iTunes, where the newest of my podcasts live and wait for me. They are synched to that iThingy device, and at the same time the ones I have already heard magically disappear.
On Monday morning, I plug my device into the stereo of my wondrous Honda Civic, workhorse of Highway 57, and start listening to all this collected wisdom I acquired on Saturday.
This week, I was catching up with Planet Money, which is a segment on NPR. They interviewed James Heckman, an economist. It was riveting.
Excitement and economists–those two terms don’t go together at all. That may be, but this time was different. They were talking to him about the importance of preschool education.
Stifle that yawn.
What was interesting about this podcast to me was that the research Dr. Heckman has done on preschool education indicates that society could have a strong return on investment in it. If we put a dollar into preschool education for children with fewer advantages, society could reap over thirty times that in decreased costs in prisons, job training classes, and other programs.
Here’s the gist of the show. There have been studies done about the effectiveness of job training programs provided to young people who have not had many advantages in life, and the studies indicated that the outcomes of these programs are disappointing. Why is that? Well, it turns out that in the work world, it is not all about your job skills per se, but the “soft skills.” It’s’ the ability to get along with others, make eye contact, show up on time, smile, control your temper that really counts in the workplace. Some people get these soft skills at home, but others do not.
A study of young people who came from areas of economic deprivation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, dating back to the 1960s [the Perry Preschool Study] shows that a gap opened up between the children in a preschool program and those in the study who were not that is measurable even by the age of five. These children were followed into adulthood by the researchers; in fact they were followed for forty years. The children who went to the preschool were ahead of the ones who didn’t by the time they entered school. But the fascinating thing is that after they graduated from high school, huge differences opened up. At age 27, the control group [the ones who did not go to preschool] had nearly three times more arrests. That group earned only two-thirds of what the other group did.
It goes on–the girls who went to the preschool were fifty percent more likely to have a savings account than the others by the time they are 27. They were more likely to own a car.
The Planet Money team admitted that the Perry Preschool Study is a small study, but subsequent studies have only reinforced the results.
So what’s going on here? What’s so special about preschool? Well, at preschool, there is structure and routine. Children have playtime and circle time. They talk about the calendar. They talk about the weather. They have little chores to do. They play outside and they take a nap. They learn how to paint, and to build with blocks. They have all these little interactions where they learn to negotiate, to talk to each other, to share–these are the skills that these preschoolers get, and the control group does not, in the Perry Preschool Study. A teacher at a preschool in Brooklyn pointed out on the show that this is also the age at which kids learn empathy and problem solving, and form social bonds. There’s a small window for that. If children don’t develop these soft skills by 5 or 6, it becomes harder and harder for them to do so. Later on in life, job training doesn’t work because the students do not have these skills.
So the economist’s conclusion is that spending money on preschools is one of the smartest things we can do with our dollars as a society. There is a big return on this investment in children.
We are in the first weeks of summer reading program here at the library. Can you figure out why I mention this podcast? What preschools do is often parallel to what we do here, though we do it on a smaller scale. We teach early literacy skills in every preschool story time and in every summer reading program. Studies of these have shown how important they are to gaining and retaining reading skills. I think it would follow, if someone would do a study, that the soft skills our preschoolers learn during our sessions would also be important in the same way that they are in these studies.
If you want to hear the podcast, it’s here:

with a follow-up here:

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