Episode 411: Why Preschool Can Save The World : Planet Money A robber baron who spent his billions on finger paint and changing tables. Decades-long studies that found preschool made a huge difference in the lives of poor children. And a Nobel prize-winning economist.
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Episode 411: Why Preschool Can Save The World

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Episode 411: Why Preschool Can Save The World

Episode 411: Why Preschool Can Save The World

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ALEX BLUMBERG, HOST:

In Tulsa, Okla., in an early childhood center called Educare, kids are playing with buckets and water, moving around toy trucks, and one little 15-month-old is pushing her doll around in a toy car. The doll, by the way, is breaking the law.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: She's a baby.

BLUMBERG: She's a baby? She's driving a car and talking on a cellphone. Who is she talking to?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: To Mama.

BLUMBERG: Further down the hall, kids are using stamps of body parts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you want to use the stamp pad? Come with us. Let's use the stamp pad. We have your hands and your feet. Leonardo (ph), you are stacking those. Look at you.

BLUMBERG: One little boy was stacking up towers of blocks and then kicking them over. There's a lot of stuff you'd expect here - kids painting with little paint sets, playing with toys, taking naps. But what's going on here isn't just cute. It's important, hugely important. It may be the solution - and I'm only half joking here - to everything wrong in the world. Poverty, crime, the economy, deficit - the solution to all of society's problems, preschool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENSITIVE KID")

COLD WAR KIDS: (Singing) I try being sweet. It's buried deep in me.

BLUMBERG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alex Blumberg. And today we're doing something of a mash-up. We'll be revisiting a program we did last year on preschool, and we're adding a bunch of new reporting and other things that we've learned. And we're going to start things off here, in that early childhood center in Tulsa. This place is state-of-the-art, special rooms with developmentally appropriate learning materials, little nooks where kids can play house or curl up with a book. It's one of the nicest day care centers I've ever seen, and I actually have a 2-year-old, and I've been looking at a lot of day care centers. It is the type of place I can tell you that millionaires in Manhattan would be standing in line to send their kids to. But there are no millionaires' kids here. In fact, if you're a millionaire, you can't get in. Only families at or near the poverty level are allowed.

The center is the flagship of a bold experiment in Oklahoma, an experiment to try to get as many of the state's toddlers who need it into a high-quality preschool. The person behind the experiment is a self-described former robber baron who decided that one of the best things he could do with the billions he made in the private sector was spend it on building blocks, changing tables and finger paint. And the seeds of how he made that decision go back decades, to a couple of weird experiments in the '60s and '70s. And the one we're going to focus on first took place a thousand miles away from Oklahoma, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

FRANCES CAMPBELL: There were a couple of psychologists on faculty here at the time who got a federal grant to set up this model program for poor children.

BLUMBERG: Dr. Frances Campbell was a child psychologist who was hired back then to work on this model program for poor children, specifically to see whether this model program was actually doing what it was intended to do, help children learn and develop. See, the academics at the University of North Carolina were starting this model program at a time when not much was actually known about how kids' brains developed and how they learned.

CAMPBELL: Going back, what learning theory was saying back then was that the early environment didn't matter all that much. Of course you had to keep them taken care of, they had to be safe and warm and fed and all that, but that was considered enough.

BLUMBERG: In other words, as long as those basic needs were met, not that much else you did mattered. If you read to your kids a lot or never read to them at all, if you'd talk to them all the time or never said a word to them, it didn't really affect how they did in school or what kind of adults they became.

CAMPBELL: But people began to question that, just what you should do early on. Then there was a whole other line of research. This involved infants being raised in orphanages where they didn't have anybody, they just lay in cribs all day long. And somebody did an experiment where they tied these orphans to adults who were handicapped adults, but they matched each baby with an adult that really loved it and took care of it and talked to it. And the difference in those infants was astounding, astounding. And so suddenly everybody said, hey, wait a minute. It's not just that you keep them alive, it's that they're crippled if they don't get this kind of early handling and talking to. So that was a very important piece of information.

BLUMBERG: And so at this model program in North Carolina, they were taking this new research and running with it. Kids started almost from the time they were infants, and they attended all the way to age 5. Researchers there developed a curriculum designed to stimulate and grow the minds of babies and young children. They hired caregivers and trained them in these developmental techniques. But to really tell if it was having an effect, they needed something to compare this program to, an alternate reality in which these poor kids didn't get put into a model child development program. They needed, in other words, a control group.

And so the people who set up this project in 1971, they made one. There were around 50 poor kids who were put in the preschool program and another 50 or so poor kids from the same neighborhoods, the same backgrounds, similar in every way possible, except instead of going to preschool every day for eight or nine hours, the kids in the control group, they just lead their lives as normal. Dr. Frances Campbell, her expertise was in administering IQ tests to babies - yes, there is such a thing - and she says that initially, she was skeptical that they would find any difference between the control group and the preschool group. She believed more in nature than in nurture. But after just a few months, she ran that first round of tests comparing babies in the program to the babies who were just doing business as usual.

CAMPBELL: We all researched harm of things. We were all - as soon as we got the three-month data in, we wanted to see (laughter), you know, the minute we had enough data to look at, we always looked just as fast as we could look. And I'd begun to see the groups diverge very early. They were right on top of each other at three months. Then they begun to change. And so I saw it happening.

BLUMBERG: The project that Dr. Campbell was working on was called the Abecedarian Project, an Abecedarian being one who studies the alphabet, or an absolute beginner. And the tests she was doing and continued for months and then years. And consistently, the preschool kids had a higher average IQ than the non-preschool kids. Researchers followed the kids through high school. The IQ differences stayed the same. And even when they followed up with the kids at 21, the IQ difference was still there. Dr. Campbell found this stunning. In a lot of learning interventions, you can produce a short-term IQ effect, but it fades over time, often in just a couple years. But here, a decade and a half after the preschool, the IQ difference was still strong. She called the guy who had started the program, Dr. Craig Ramey.

CAMPBELL: He was actually driving in his car when I called him on his cellphone, and I said, pull over because you're going to have a wreck. (Laughter). You're not going to believe what I'm going to tell you.

BLUMBERG: And what did you tell him?

CAMPBELL: Well, I told him that they didn't converge, that we still had a significant IQ difference at 21.

BLUMBERG: And that's so interesting, in that that is just, like, in the field, that was just a sort of miraculous finding.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, almost nobody has shown anything that lasted - well, nobody has shown anything that lasted that long that I'm aware of except us. 'Cause most people don't have the chance to do it, you know, a randomized study and that much data. So it's really quite a remarkable finding.

BLUMBERG: But the most remarkable findings were not even necessarily IQ-related. The preschool kids differed from their non-preschool counterparts in ways that researchers might never have predicted. For example, teen pregnancy. The kids without preschool, the control group, teen pregnancy was a big problem. Liz Pungello is another researcher who studies what happened to the Abecedarian kids later in life.

LIZ PUNGELLO: Forty-five percent of the control group were age 19 or younger when their first child was born. So technically a teen parent. Nineteen or younger. Forty-five percent of the control group.

BLUMBERG: Almost half of the kids without preschool.

PUNGELLO: Yeah. Versus 26 percent of the preschool group.

BLUMBERG: Right.

PUNGELLO: Yeah. That's huge.

BLUMBERG: Half versus 1 in 4. And that is not all. Preschool kids were much more likely to have a job, much less likely to be on public assistance and much more likely not only to enter college but to complete it.

PUNGELLO: Whereas only 6 percent of the control group actually went to a four-year college or university and graduated, almost 25 percent of the treated group went to a four-year college and graduated.

BLUMBERG: In other words, this at-risk group of kids who got preschool in the early 1970s, they achieved the same graduation rate as the population at large. Now, these results would be notable by themselves, but what makes them remarkable is that they're backed up by another very similar study, an unrelated study that was begun a few years earlier, actually, in an entirely different part of the country, Ypsilanti, Mich. And in this study, called the Perry Preschool Project, researchers did essentially the same thing as they did in North Carolina. They took a group of poor kids, put half of them in a high-quality preschool. Half got business as usual.

In the Perry study, the kids started preschool later, and they had less of it, just a couple of hours a day. But the results, when they followed up with those kids later in life, were equally as impressive. The Perry study didn't improve IQ, but it did show improvement in a lot of the same things that they found in the Abecedarian study, things like income and teen pregnancy. But the Perry kids also improved in ways that they didn't find in the Abecedarian study. Preschool girls, for example, in the Perry study, when they got to age 27, were 50 percent more likely to have a savings account, 20 percent more likely to have a car. Preschool kids were less likely to get sick, more likely to own their own homes. But perhaps the biggest effect that the Perry study showed had to do with crime.

We talked to labor economist James Heckman about all this. And, a note, this interview is from our earlier show on preschool that aired last year. Heckman spent a lot of time studying the Perry Preschool Project, and he told us when researchers followed up with boys in the control group - that's the non-preschool group - they'd been arrested an average of 2.3 times. But in the preschool group, which he calls the treatment group...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES HECKMAN: In the treatment group, that was cut in half.

BLUMBERG: Wow.

HECKMAN: You look at monthly earnings on the job. The control group is earning about two-thirds of what the treatment group is earning.

BLUMBERG: Another way of putting that, the preschool kids earn 50 percent more than the non-preschool kids on average. All right. So you got two studies in two totally different parts of the country, same results. Preschool has dramatic, long-lasting effects that the people who set up these studies never even imagined. I asked Liz Pungello, the Abecedarian researcher, about that.

None of these studies were planning on these effects being apparent, right? Like, the Perry Preschool wasn't thinking, like, you know, 30 years down the road, like, preschool grads are going to be more likely to own a car. Right?

PUNGELLO: No.

BLUMBERG: Like, that was not anything that anybody was thinking about, right?

PUNGELLO: No. The whole point was to help kids be ready for school, just to increase school readiness. That was it. (Laughter). Get them to school, ready to learn (laughter). It wasn't about owning your house, you know, 30 years later.

BLUMBERG: So all of this raises a question. What in the world is going on in preschool? I asked an expert.

And do you come here every day?

ELLA: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: And when you come here, what do you do?

ELLA: I don't know. I just don't know.

BLUMBERG: You don't know?

This is Ella. She's in preschool in Brooklyn, near my house. But what she's doing in preschool is similar to what they were doing at Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti and at the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. She's finger painting. She's playing with blocks. She's watering plants. But the whole time she's doing that, she's learning what economist James Heckman has come to call soft skills. Now, these are skills that most of us might not even think of as skills - being able to control your impulses, keep your anger in check, stay on task, focus, listen, follow your curiosity. These skills are pretty basic, but they're incredibly important. They are the skills that allow you to acquire the knowledge and skills you'll need as an adult to get a good job and manage your life.

Now, you can get these skills at home from your parents, but for a lot of kids, they're growing up in homes that aren't that stable. Maybe the parents aren't around, or they're not willing or able to teach these skills. And Heckman says for kids like this, preschool can be their only chance.

HECKMAN: I mean, for these kids, 3 to 5, this is like a bolt from heaven in some sense. They got something that they hadn't had before. And that gave them a kind of a new world, a new set of skills, a new set of capabilities which empowered them, I think, and then stayed with them throughout their lives.

BLUMBERG: So that - I mean, to me, that's the thing that's sort of the most striking, is that, like, that a couple of years of things that we typically think of as just sort of like, I don't know, playtime for kids - You know, like, sharing and trust games and flash cards and finger painting. You know what I mean?

HECKMAN: Yeah. But you see that is common. But we take inventories of that. And you look at disadvantaged kids, and frequently, they don't get anything like that.

BLUMBERG: Right.

HECKMAN: This is a case - you know, most parents are teaching soft skills. I mean, they do it daily. We teach that to our kids. We do it by example. We also do it by instruction of taking the kid aside. Disadvantaged kids are frequently not given the same kind of lessons. They're not given the same kind of parenting. And, you know, people use euphemisms. You talk about harsh parenting and nonresponsive parenting. But I think many people would be shocked, especially middle-class - especially, I would guess, most of your listeners - would probably be shocked at the quality of the homes in many of these environments. Kids in disadvantaged families are getting many fewer words read to them, many fewer symbols explained to them. These things all sound very fuzzy and soft, but they translate into real changes in behavior and real attitudes and real traits. They emerge into adulthood.

BLUMBERG: One thing that really brought this home to me - I was talking to a researcher who said that she's seen kids who show up at kindergarten who've never seen a book before. If you give one to them, they don't know how to hold it, how to orient it. Think of that. A kid like that, they're starting school already so far behind a kid who's been read to every night for four years. How could that could kid possibly catch up? And, statistically, they don't. They've been set on a path where they fall behind in school. Maybe they drop out. Maybe they end up on public assistance or in a dead-end job or in jail - bad outcomes for them, and, says Heckman, bad outcomes for society as a whole.

And so Heckman, being an economist, he published this paper, "A New Cost-Benefit And Rate Of Analysis For The Perry Preschool Program: A Summary," in which he argues, essentially, spending money on preschool is one of the smartest things we can do with our dollars because investing early is the most cost-effective way to stop this cycle. See, these soft skills that are so vital for later in life, if you don't learn them early, it becomes harder and harder to learn them later. You can do it. You can learn them as a teenager, but it just costs a lot more money, and you have to devote a lot more resources to doing it. So when society actually spends money on these kids when they're in preschool, it actually makes back a lot more.

HECKMAN: The cost to society, say, of courts and crime, is lowered. The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line.

BLUMBERG: Heckman thinks of it like this - for every dollar we spend on high-quality preschool for a disadvantaged kid, we get back 7 to 10 percent a year in return. That means, he says, that for every dollar we put in today, we get between $30 and $300 back over the lifetime of that kid. And this brings us, finally, back here, to Tulsa, Okla., the deluxe early childhood center for poor kids, which is funded by a billionaire in Oklahoma named George Kaiser.

GEORGE KAISER: Well, I was a longtime robber baron working in the oil and gas industry.

HECKMAN: Also in commercial banking. He was very successful in both fields. Now, George Kaiser always figured that he'd need to give away a lot of the money he was making in the private sector. But in giving away the money, he wanted to use the same cost-benefit approach that had served him so well in business, the same approach that Heckman uses. A lot of charitable giving, Kaiser says, isn't made on that basis.

KAISER: I think the first place that people normally address is what I would call the symptoms of disadvantage - health care, housing, nutrition and so forth. And the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that though those things are necessary, they deal with the symptoms of the problem, and they don't much undo the sources of the problem. So I tried to drill back earlier to see what one could do so that those people did not have the need for housing and nutrition and health care supplied by charitable sources.

BLUMBERG: Were you - literally, were you sort of looking around - where do I give? Was it as blue sky as that?

KAISER: Yes, very much so.

BLUMBERG: And as George Kaiser looked around for where to give his money - what would attack causes and not symptoms - he came across that first study I mentioned, the Abecedarian study from North Carolina.

KAISER: I met the executive director of the Department of Human Services, who had become entranced with the Abecedarian study and was going around the state talking to people about how that could be developed in Oklahoma.

BLUMBERG: Do you remember the first time that you saw the study, read through it, what your thoughts were?

KAISER: It was a little bit of a eureka moment.

BLUMBERG: Enough of a eureka moment for Kaiser to continue to investigate. And since these initial programs from the '60s and '70s, like Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, there's been an explosion of research, biological research which actually looks at what happens in the brains of preschool-aged children. And researchers have found that stress hormones, which are often elevated in at-risk kids, can actually change the way your brain develops, make it harder for you to learn. Preschool can have a powerful impact simply by creating a calm and stress-free environment for those kids.

Kaiser also said that other wealthy people, like Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett's daughter, and Penny Pritzker in Chicago were also investing in early childhood programs. He thought, great. Early childhood, that's where I want to put my money. His foundation has put up $20 million for that Educare center. He's gotten the state to put in another $10 million. And he has plans to open several more centers in the next couple of years.

Now, there is one huge irony to this whole story. The preschool that was the actual home for the research that got George Kaiser's attention - the preschool where the kids in the Abecedarian study actually went - is set to close its doors. After four decades in operation, the state cut its funding. The preschool that did more to demonstrate the value of preschool than almost any other program in the country, even with all the evidence it itself generated, was not able to save itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENSITIVE KID")

COLD WAR KIDS: (Singing) Who made me a sensitive kid, a sensitive kid?

BLUMBERG: I should say that a lot of the stuff that I learned about early childhood and education comes from the journalist Paul Tough, who's done a bunch of stories for This American Life and has two books, the most recent of which is called, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, And The Hidden Power Of Character." I should also say there's a lot more going on in Oklahoma with preschool than I got into in this program.

But do not despair. I have a story on "This American Life" this weekend all about how Oklahoma of all places came to lead the nation in universal public preschool. It's a story partly about the evidence that we lay out here but partly about how evidence sometimes matters less than luck and political sleight of hand. Definitely check it out. We will post a link on our blog to a bunch of the studies we talked about here as well as to Paul Tough's book and the Educare center's websites in Oklahoma. You can find all that and more at npr.org/money. I'm Alex Blumberg. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENSITIVE KID")

COLD WAR KIDS: (Singing) I can't tell you why. You should've known it. Sensitive kids start acting like a grown-up. I can't tell you why. You should've known it. Sensitive kids start acting like a grown-up.

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