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February 19, 2010

The Perry Preschool Had No Playground

Perry The Perry school had no playground. It was the only school without one in Ypsilanti Michigan, a town just outside of Detroit. It was also where all of the black students went to school. In 1958, the new special education director David Weikart noticed the school, but more importantly, he noticed the students. He saw what we now call "an achievement gap" in Ypsilanti. 
 
The special education population was almost all black, while the white students generally seemed to do fine in school.  
 

"Does it have to be this way?" he thought. "What could we supply that was missing for these kids that weren't doing well?"   

He knew that once a student entered special education, they would not leave. They were generally considered a lost cause by the education system because that was just the way it was - black children just had lower IQ scores than white students. Back then, it was the heyday of the IQ test. IQ was widely thought as immovable, static, and unchangeable. Every person had a certain level of intelligence that would predict their success and African American children just had lower IQs.  
 
Dr. Weikart had an idea though: What if he could increase the IQ of underprivileged African American students before they got to school? 
 
We sometimes forget the role of preschool in our American history and our struggle to become a more just society, especially now when so many of the arguments for and against voluntary universal pre-k revolve around financial principles. Preschool was invented to address the achievement gap between poor and middle class children.
Early Lessons, a documentary on American Radio Works by Emily Hanford, describes the history of the Perry Preschool study, and its role in today's pre-k educational landscape.  
 
Preschool is possibly the most researched idea in education, a trend that began with a school that was an experiment from the beginning. The Perry Preschool founders campaigned door-to-door in area neighborhoods to recruit African American children for the school. Then, they flipped a coin. Random selection was used to choose who would be selected into the school and who would be in the control group. 
 
If you teach at-risk children and ever wonder if you are really making a difference, or want to know how to talk about why kids need preschool, listen to this documentary. The Perry Preschool experiment, the study that generated the
High/Scope active learning curriculum, reminds us that in order for preschool to be as effective as the original Perry Preschool, it must be of high quality.  
 
As pre-k educators, we walk in the shoes of those who have gone before us. Pre-k is not just about doing better on a test; it is about doing better in life. The Perry Preschool experiment has proven that over 50 years in a fascinating portrayal of the history of pre-k as an intervention to address inequity.  
 
Transcript: 
http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/preschool/transcript.html 
 
Audio: 
http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/americanradioworks/2009/early_lessons_full.pls

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