Thursday, May 30, 2019


There are any number of ways to define success, the most prominent of which involves coming into possession of money and lots of it. But having had at least four billionaires close enough to me in life to draw a few conclusions, none of them appeared to be particularly happy people. Indeed, they behaved in ways that I would consider troubling in a child: self-deluded, irritable, suspicious of the motives of others, and lacking in empathy, all traits that various studies have likewise found to be characteristics of the wealthy.

No, I don't consider the accumulation of riches to be a sign of success except in a very narrow sense (not that I'd reject it if you offered it to me). To me success in life involves having loving, stable relationships with others, enjoying good health, and waking up each morning to a day of meaningful employment, be it of the paid variety or not. These things tend to be true of people most likely to report themselves to be satisfied with their lives, and to me that's the real measure of success.

In the late 1950's an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of poor minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today. You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.

An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. While critics of the program used this to attack it as a failure, the Perry School research continued. While the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems. This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being "smarter" than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. By the time they were in their 40's the test subjects were more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid's lives, and were less likely to be involved in crime or drug use. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of what was essentially play-based preschool.

In other words, whatever was being measured by the I.Q. tests, it didn't seem to have any bearing on success.

According to Nobel Prize laureate economist James Heckman, who continues to work on the project, the assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not I.Q, but rather the development of "non-cognitive" skills like motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others. These are the critical skills that help people succeed at school, work, and life.

What makes the Perry School Project so important, is that it is the only one that has tracked its subjects over the course of their entire lives. There as been renewed interest recently as Heckman has released a pair of papers that take another look at the subjects who are now in their mid-50's. Not surprisingly to those of us who work in early childhood education, those two years in preschool continue to have a positive impact not just on those who attended, but on their children and even grandchildren, who continue to be more "successful" than their peers, and it has nothing to do with I.Q., and everything to do with social and emotional skills.

The one consistent finding (Heckman's) seen . . . is that "successful preschools do exactly what successful parents do." They find were the kids are at, take them to the next step. allow them to make mistakes and engage them in a learning experience every day.

That, not drill-and-kill education, is the road to success, however you want to define it.

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