In the 1980s, Barbara Bowman, one of the founders of Erikson Institute, was part of discussions around how to disseminate the findings of a landmark early childhood research study. Recently, she took part in a conversation to reflect on the study’s legacy.

Barbara Bowman

Barbara Bowman

“HighScope Educational Research Foundation’s Perry Preschool Study demonstrated conclusively that the life of a child from a low-income family could be dramatically changed through a high-quality preschool environment,” Bowman said. “However, although we have demonstrated that it is possible to change outcomes, the challenge is to find ways to consistently change it for all children.”

Bowman gathered with other early childhood leaders in May at the 2016 HighScope International Conference in Detroit, where she was part of a luncheon keynote conversation that examined the history of early education and how it can serve children and families moving forward. The discussion focused on the impact of HighScope’s Perry Preschool Study and included Evelyn Moore, a special education teacher who was part of the research.

At the time the research was released, the extent of the impact was eye-opening to professionals in the field and surprising to the general public, Bowman said. In the 1960s, the HighScope researchers examined two groups of poor children who were at-risk for school success: One that was enrolled in a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope curriculum and another that was not enrolled in a program. As the children grew into adolescents, researchers saw remarkable differences. The children who were enrolled in the program were less likely to be placed in special education or be involved with the juvenile justice system. The children in the program also received higher grades in school.

In the 1980s, Bowman and fellow Erikson founder Irving B. Harris joined a discussion at HighScope about disseminating the findings to policy makers and early childhood advocates to encourage the development of more preschool programs like the Perry Preschool Project.

“At the time, there were criticisms of the HighScope curriculum, because it focused on precursor academic skills rather than encouraging free play,” Bowman said. “Many in the early childhood field did not believe children could or should be focused on school-type learning.” While this disagreement continues to some extent, there is increasingly an agreement that preschool curricula should align more intentionally with kindergarten and beyond, she said.

While some questioned the appropriateness of the curriculum, others questioned whether what children learned as 3-year-olds could change the rest of their lives. By the time Bowman joined the HighScope Board of Directors in 1986, new evidence about the effects of preschool were being reported by other programs as well as HighScope. Twenty years later, the conclusion was firmly backed by solid research: Preschool made a difference.

But not all children have access to programs that offer high-quality curricula, Bowman said. In many programs teachers don’t have the level of training of those in HighScope-based programs, so the same level of benefit can’t be expected. Just because it is possible to change outcomes for kids doesn’t mean it will automatically change by simply enrolling them in a program.

“If we are going to change what happens to children later in life, we better change what we teach in prekindergarten,” Bowman said.