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Does This Research Suggest That Preschool Leads to Prison?

As someone in the early reading space, I've heard a lot of claims made to support the belief that you shouldn’t teach a child to read before kindergarten.

And while most of these claims are simply untrue, there is one claim that stands out as the most outlandish (and potentially the most dangerous) of them all: 

That children who are taught academics in preschool are more likely to commit crimes as adults

Even though this assertion is certifiably false, it has undoubtedly influenced many parents’ decisions regarding the type of education their little ones receive. 

In this blog post, I’m going to dive deeper into where this myth stems from and explain why future criminal activity should be the last thing on your mind when it comes to making decisions for your child’s education. 

Where does this claim come from?

Some who advocate against early reading refer to The high/scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23 (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997), which they claim offers evidence that children who are taught too young will face behavioral challenges as adults.

What did the study test?

The high/scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23 is actually a follow-up to the iconic Perry Preschool Project. (We evaluate that study here.)

In the Perry Preschool Project, researchers led by David Weikart in the 1960s set out to determine whether attending a high-quality preschool would lead to better academic and social outcomes for children living in poverty in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

The participants consisted of 123 African American 3- and 4-year-olds from a low-income neighborhood. The children joined the study in five waves between 1962 and 1965 and researchers randomly assigned them to one of three curriculum models: High/Scope, Direct Instruction, and Nursery School. 

In this 1997 follow-up, Schweinhart and Weikart sampled 68 of the original Perry Preschool Project participants at 23 years old. They compared the education levels, incomes, community involvement, and criminal activity between the groups as indicators of the long-term impacts of the different preschool models.

What were the results? 

The 1997 follow-up study found no significant differences between the groups for many of the indicators. 

However, 47% of the Direct Instruction group was labeled emotionally impaired or disturbed by age 23—41% higher than participants in the High/Scope group. Also, the Direct Instruction group committed 2.5 times as many acts of misconduct than the High/Scope group at age 15, and had 3 times as many felony arrests per person at age 23 (especially felonies involving property crimes).

What do the results mean?

To interpret these findings accurately, it’s crucial for us to have an extremely clear understanding of the three different preschool models to which the children were assigned. 

The High/Scope model is characterized by:

  • carefully catered instruction based on a child’s interests and abilities,
  • child-initiated learning based on the Plan-Do-Review process,
  • an emphasis on social-emotional development that supports social interactions and builds a secure community,
  • curriculum that is reflective of the child’s community and culture that also fosters a sense of respect for diversity, and 
  • strong family engagement through the development of supportive relationships with parents.

In contrast, the Direct Instruction model is based on: 

  • teacher-directed instruction, 
  • intentionally and carefully planned lessons, and 
  • small increments of learning with clearly defined learning objectives.

And finally, the Nursery School model focuses on:

  • “unit-based” learning, where teachers plan activities and field trips around broad units or themes, 
  • the development of social skills instead of intellectual skills, and
  • encouraging cooperation and good manners.
Based on the understanding of these models, we can reasonably conclude that there is a strong correlation between certain characteristics of the High/Scope model and pro-social behavior later in life. 

Researchers have theorized that the focus on social-emotional development, community building, and family engagement is responsible for this difference.

What do the results not mean?

Let’s be clear here: Absolutely no findings from the original Perry Preschool Project or Schweinhart and Weikart’s follow-up study indicate that students are more likely to commit crimes or experience emotional challenges later in life simply because they received academic instruction in preschool. 

The folks who use this study as evidence that academic instruction leads to negative behavior outcomes in the long-run egregiously conflate the High/Scope model with a complete lack of academic learning. But, as is clear from the descriptions above, children in all three models engage in academic learning; it’s the way in which they engage with the material that differs. 

In other words, while the differences between the methods of instruction (teacher-directed vs. child-initiated) may result in different learning outcomes, academic learning nevertheless takes place in every model.

It is illogical to conclude that the negative behavioral outcomes of students in the Direct Instruction group were a result of the way they were taught. 

The High/Scope model differs from the Direct Instruction model in far more ways than the method of instruction. The emphasis on social-emotional development, cultural sensitivity, community building, and family engagement are hallmarks of the High/Scope model that are not present in the Direct Instruction model. 

To truly compare the effects of teacher-directed instruction to child-initiated learning on future behavior, all of the non-academic factors would need to remain consistent between both groups. Since that’s not what was being tested, claiming these results mean academic instruction causes antisocial behavior is wildly irresponsible.

And wouldn’t it make much more sense to conclude that the pro-social behavior demonstrated by the High/Scope group is more likely connected to social-emotional instruction, family instruction, and cultural sensitivity rather than the way in which the students received academic instruction? Researchers certainly think so. 

In fact, the Perry Preschool Project is one of the most widely cited studies used as evidence of the importance of high-quality early childhood education. Its influence has spanned decades and impacted educational policy. 

The fact that the follow-up of this study is being used to dismiss the power of early childhood education as intervention is a testament to how easy it is to misconstrue research findings—especially when taken out of context.

What’s the bottom line?

People cite Schweinhart and Weikart’s 1997 follow-up to the Perry Preschool Project as evidence that academic instruction before kindergarten can lead to behavioral challenges in adulthood, including a higher likelihood of the individual committing a felony. 

However, this argument ignores the fact that the students who attended High/Scope model preschools also received instruction, just in a different way than students in the other models. Researchers believe that differences in future behavior may have been due to the emphasis on social-emotional learning, cultural sensitivity, and family engagement present in the High/Scope model—not the method of learning. 

TLDR: The results from the Perry Preschool Project do not support the idea that children who are taught academics in preschool are more likely to commit crimes as adults.

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