Critique of High/Scope Perry Preschool Claims

By: Barry Peters, Esq.

The plural of "anecdote" is not "data."
Frank Kotsonis / Roger Brinner

      In the relentless press for states to authorize and fund public preschool programs, one seductive claim is repeatedly made: For every dollar that a state invests in public preschool programs, between $7.16 and $12.90 in future expenses will be saved.

      Public preschool is offered as a magic box from which the state will reap a stunning return-on-investment. The not-so-subtle allure of this claim is that the more a state spends on public preschool programs, the less it will have to spend in the future for remedial education, welfare benefits, or on the prevention and punishment of crime. At bottom, the argument implies that would be impossible for a state to spend too much on public preschool.

      The problem with this claim is that it is based on a small cluster of studies which tracked students from a single brief experimental program. Among preschool advocates, the High/Scope Perry Preschool program is the crown jewel. It is their primary evidence offered as proof of the return-on-investment which states will reap from tax dollars spent on public preschools.

      But the program has failed to live up to its grand promises. To the contrary, the program has proved most effective at producing hardened criminals and welfare moms. In short, this program would be an unmitigated catastrophe if duplicated here in Idaho.

      For public preschool advocates to continue to point to the High Scope/Perry Preschool program as a basis for their claims can only be viewed either as uninformed or as disingenuous.

The Original Program: High/Scope Perry Preschool

      For a total of three school years during the 1960s, a small and experimental public preschool program was undertaken in a single elementary school in Michigan. The program was conducted at the Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Michigan and came to be known as the High/Scope Perry Preschool program.

      Although the program lasted a few more years before being discontinued, the students who participated during those three school years were then tracked for the next 37 years to see what might be discerned about the long-term (longitudinal) impact of participation in the program.

      The program participants were then compared with a control group of supposedly-similar students. But before considering the long-term impact of the program, the unusual demographics of the program are worth noting. The participating students and their families had the following in common:

      As preschool programs go, this one was of the highest quality. If public preschool programs are capable of producing desirable results, this program should have produced those among the best. One would have expected a program that was as expensive and resource-intensive as this one to produce students of the highest quality. It didn't.

Long Term Outcomes: High/Scope Perry Students Later in Life:

      A careful look at the High/Scope Perry Preschool students themselves brings into focus a seriously dysfunctional cross-section of society. Instead of maturing into a group of productive and stable citizens, the children from this program have in reality become welfare moms and hardened criminals, draining the precious resources of the states in which they live.

      The students who participated in the program (and in the control group) in the 1960s were carefully monitored through age 40. Based on these longitudinal studies, here is what we know about those preschool students as they grew up:

      Any effort to calculate an expected financial return based on the High/Scope Perry Preschool program must look first at these tragic results: A 32% dropout rate; male unemployment rates of 40%; illegitimate children; lifetime crime costs for each male student in excess of $1,000,000 and lifetime welfare costs for each female student in excess of $100,000.

      Surely, these are not the results that Idaho would want to attain for its own students. Yet those are precisely the real life results suffered by Michigan (and other states) at the hands of the preschool students who participated in this program.

      So how can the educators from this program and the authors of these studies claim that states will save $12.90 for each dollar spent on public preschool?

      The answer is that almost any group can be made to look good if it is compared to a control group that performs more poorly. As bleak as the data may be on the Perry preschool participants, the statistics for the control group are even worse. But despite the fact that an even lower performing group was available for comparison, policy makers must not loose sight of the actual data for these preschool participants. If this program and these studies can be said to have any relevance at all, it should be in the nature of a warning of the dire consequences of trying to emulate the public preschool program in which those students participated.

      Despite the stunning failure of the High/Scope Perry Preschool students themselves, public preschool advocates continue to trot out these misleading "statistics" to lure legislators into allocating taxpayer funds for public preschool programs. At some point, continuing to make such claims must pass from the realm of simple ignorance into that which is intentionally misleading.

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