“This is a unique moment in time when early learning is no longer an afterthought, but has come into its own and is recognized as the first and most critical stage in human development.” The words are US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s, spoken at last year’s conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

With Duncan’s comments in mind, Strategies for Children launches this blog on developments in research, policy and practice that inform the twin goals of ensuring that all children in Massachusetts have access to high-quality early education and are proficient readers by the end of third grade. What better way to begin than by looking back to the pioneering Perry Preschool Project, which produced some of the most compelling evidence in the history of educational research?

Today, a broad spectrum of people – from business leaders to educators to law enforcement officials – recognize that research consistently demonstrates that investing in high-quality early education and care yields dividends to children and taxpayers alike. Low-income children who attended a high-quality early education and care program are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and attend college — and less likely to need expensive social services or be incarcerated – than children who did not attend such a program.

The roots of this understanding reach back to Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1962, when David Weikart founded the groundbreaking Perry Preschool. As a school administrator, Weikart was alarmed by the large numbers of African-American children who were doing badly in school. He was alarmed by how many weren’t finishing high school. He was alarmed by how many needed special education services. He was alarmed by how many were being held back a grade. The story of what Weikart did about these concerns is the subject of a radio and Web documentary by American RadioWorks reporter Emily Hanford.

“Rather than change the schools, Weikart decided to invent a new kind of school – a pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds. His hope was that preschool could boost children’s IQs. This was a radical notion. Most people believed everyone was born with a certain amount of intelligence, a quotient, and it never changed,” Hanford writes.

“The Perry Preschool would focus on cognitive development – stimulating children’s brains, increasing their vocabulary, teaching them letters and numbers. There was no evidence this would boost IQ or help children do better in school. So Weikart decided to set up his preschool as a scientific experiment.” In one group were children randomly admitted to the over-subscribed program; children not selected comprised the control group.

Perry Preschool’s curriculum focused on child’s play, not paper and pencil. “We tried everything,” says former teacher Louise Derman-Sparks. “It was never directed teaching where we sat them around a table with paper and pencil and told them to check worksheets. It was always in the framework of children actively learning.”

Here was a gold-standard, randomized “experiment” that found children who attended Perry Preschool weren’t any smarter IQ-wise than the control group, but they were better students. They needed less special education and exhibited fewer behavior problems. They got better grades in high school and earned higher scores on achievement tests. As 40-year-olds, they were more likely to have jobs and own homes and cars. They were less likely to have committed crimes. Other seminal longitudinal studies — the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina and Chicago Child Parent Centers – followed with similar findings. Read a summary here.

In her fascinating retrospective, Hanford interviews several original players and such converts to the cause of high-quality early education as Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman. It is well worth a listen.