Multigenerational Effects of Adult Education on Family Learning

Joyce Hartman

By Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)

A growing body of research on early childhood education (ECE) preschool programs that have been studied longitudinally for some half a century suggests that, to a very large extent, the long-term success of these programs can be attributed to the adult education received by the parents of the preschool children (Sticht, 2011).

Most recently, Heckman & Karapakula (2019a) studied the disadvantaged African American children who participated in the well-known High-Scope Perry Preschool ECE program in the 1960s. Their new longitudinal research shows that when the Perry children grew up to become adults in their fifties, the Perry participants achieved a number of cost-beneficial educational and social outcomes over those of the non-participant control group of children.

Additionally, they found that when the children of the Perry Preschool program grew up and had children of their own, the children of the Perry participants showed positive educational and social outcomes over the children of the grown-up, Perry non-participant controls (Heckman & Karapakula (2019b). This indicates a multigenerational effect of the Perry program.

Importantly for adult educators and advocates, research on the grown-up children who participated in the Perry project led Heckman & Karapakula (2019a) to note that the children who participated in the Perry program “had better home environments and parental attachment during childhood, which are potential sources of the observed long-lasting treatment effects (p. 4).

These findings are significant for adult educators and advocates because they point to the role of the education of the adult parents of the Perry Preschool children in the ECE program. This role was supported by Lawrence J. Schweinhart, a founder of the Perry Preschool program. He acknowledged that in the Perry program teachers spent “substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities” (Education Week, 2009, p. 23).

The idea that much of the success of the Perry Preschool program may have depended upon the education of the parents of the preschool children is also suggested by the finding that the Perry Preschool program not only improved the lives of the children who participated in the program, but also the lives of their siblings who did not participate in the Perry program (Heckman & Karapakula, 2019a). Clearly, this strongly suggests that much of the multigenerational success of this noted early ECE preschool program depended on adult education to improve the skills and knowledge of the children’s parents. The importance of adult education in the Perry and other experimental ECE programs that have been studied for decades is a point I made earlier in a paper on “Educated Parents, Educated Children” (Sticht, 2010). In this paper I considered the possibility that what many have considered to be the long-term cost-beneficial effects of educating children in ECE programs may actually have been primarily the results that the programs had on educating the children’s parents, as in the Perry Preschool project above.

Robert G. Lynch of the Economic Policy Institute, in citing research on the importance of preschool programs, noted that many ECE programs also provide adult education and parenting classes. Again, this suggests that perhaps a significant percentage of the benefits these preschool programs produce may result from the effects of their parenting and literacy education activities for the children’s adult parents, which in turn helps parents provide a better quality home life with activities supportive of their children’s education and social emotional development.

In an extensive review of research on childcare and preschool education, Frederick Morrison and colleagues questioned the effectiveness of both childcare and preschool programs that do not focus on improving parenting skills. Concerning childcare, they say, “Overall, parenting appears to be a more important source of influence on children’s development than is childcare. … high-quality childcare will not offset the negative effect of poor parenting, and poor-quality childcare will not prevent success for children with effective parents” (Morrison, Bachman, & Connor, 2005, p. 48-49).

From Parents to Progeny: Toward a Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy


Given the important intergenerational and multigenerational effects of parents’ education level on the achievement of their children and their grandchildren, I believe we need to shift our education policies from a focus on one life cycle to a focus on “multiple life cycles” education. Such a policy would explicitly recognize that adults transfer their educational achievements to the achievement of their children.

It would also recognize that adult education should be valued as much as early childhood education, and that nations should provide adult education systems on par with children’s education systems. Poorly educated children are the source of adult functional illiteracy, and functionally illiterate adults are the source of poorly educated children.

Perhaps through education based on a Multiple Life Cycles policy, in which children are guaranteed a right to educated parents, the vicious intergenerational and multigenerational cycles of functional illiteracy can be stopped at both sources.


  • Education Week. (2009). The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Heckman, J. & Karapakula, G. (2019a). The Perry Preschoolers at Late Midlife: A Study in Design-Specific Inference. NBER Working Paper No. 25888, JEL No. C01, C4,I21.
  • Heckman, J. & Karapakula, G. (2019b). Intergenerational and Intragenerational Externalities of the Perry Preschool Project. NBER Working Paper No. 25889 JEL No. C4, I21.
  • Lynch, R. (2004). Exceptional Returns: Economic, Fiscal, and Social Benefits of Investment in Early Childhood Development (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.  
  • Morrison, F., Bachman, H. and Connor, C. (2005). Improving Literacy in America New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Sticht, T. (2011, Fall). Getting It Right from the Start: The Case for Early Parenthood Education American Educator, p35-39. (Available online using Google search).
  • Sticht, T. (2010, Fall). Educated Parents, Educated Children: Toward a Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy. Education Canada, Vol. 50. (Available online using Google search).

 Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy



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