Setting the Record Straight on Perry Preschool

Brainwave Trust – Keryn O’Neill
The attempts to use evidence when developing policy to enhance outcomes for New Zealand’s children are to be applauded. Research can certainly be a very useful tool in determining which of the multiple options facing Government are likely to effectively contribute to improved wellbeing for children. However, like the tools used by the Kiwi DIY-er, correct use is necessary for a positive result.

Inaccurate interpretations of research can occur, particularly when relying on reviews rather than the original research. One of the most publicised early intervention studies is The High Scope/Perry Preschool project (Campbell, Pungello, Ramey, Miller-Johnson, & Burchinal, 2001), which has been frequently misinterpreted to advocate for extending centre-based early childhood education (ECE) (Fergusson, Boden, & Hayne, 2011; Fergusson, Horwood, Grant, & Ridder, 2005; Zigler & Styfco, 1994).

The following extract from the recent Report of the Health Select Committee is an example of this:
The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, which began in the 1960s, has determined the short- and long-term effects of a high quality preschool education programmes (sic) for young children living in poverty” p.22

…. There are a number of conclusions often attributed to the Perry Preschool research which are in fact not supported by the study. Some of these are noted below.

The Perry Preschool study does not claim to tell us anything about the effects of ECE on children aged from birth to 3 year of age, as its participants were all 3 or 4 years old. Therefore this study cannot be used to support children under 3 years attending ECE.
It does not indicate that ECE, on its own, is an effective intervention as it was combined with family intervention, which could have had equal or greater effect on the positive outcomes achieved. Therefore Perry Preschool cannot be used to globally endorse ECE as an intervention to improve children’s outcomes.
• The Perry Preschool project was staffed by highly qualified and trained teachers who received ongoing supervision and training. Their outcomes cannot be equated with those from the largely commercially-oriented New Zealand ECE environment in which only 50% of staff may have any qualifications.
• The children in the study attended for 12.5 hours per week, therefore it tells us nothing about the effects of being in ECE for up to 20 hours per week and cannot be used to support increased hours in ECE.

For the reasons cited above, the recommendation to increase ECE for babies and children from birth to 3 years cannot claim to be based on the evidence provided by this study. The move towards cross party agreement on investment in our youngest children is a hugely positive step for NZ’s future. A commitment to accurately applying the available evidence will ensure this investment is maximised.