There are plenty of pre-K skeptics out there. How much can one year of playing on the rug, singing songs, and learning how to share really help kids in the long term? Some recent research supports the idea of “fadeout,” such as the study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K. It found that even though students who had enrolled in pre-K entered kindergarten ahead of their peers, this advantage dissipated by the end of their first year of elementary school. By second grade, pre-K completers were actually behind.
Similarly disheartening results came from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS). “So, sure, there’s evidence that intensive programs for at-risk children can have a lifelong impact, like the Perry Preschool or Abecedarian programs” some argue, “but those are very specific conditions. There’s no way that can work at scale.” However, a pair of studies on Tulsa, OK’s preschool landscape provide evidence that a real-world, universal early childhood program can have lasting, positive effects all the way through middle school.
Tulsa, and Oklahoma, as a whole, is a fairly unique place when it comes to early childhood education. Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom for teacher salary (49th, in 2016) and per-student expenditures in K-12 education (47th, in 2016). However, the state was the second to offer universal pre-K when it did so in 1998. Nearly all school districts offer pre-K, and 86% of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K or Head Start, making it the third-most accessible state for preschool. Tulsa is the second-largest city in OK, and Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) enrolled over 2,600 four-year-olds this year. TPS also works in conjunction with a nationally-recognized Head Start program, the Community Action Project (CAP), to serve children from low-income families.
As with many early childhood programs, evaluations have found that Tulsa’s pre-K participants outperform their peers at kindergarten entry, controlling for relevant background characteristics. What’s more, beyond the baseline positive effects of Tulsa pre-K, children who were in classrooms with higher Instructional Support tended to have even stronger problem-solving and pre-literacy skills*. Unlike in the HSIS and Tennessee study, however, students’ advantages in early elementary didn’t fade out. Instead, students who attended CAP Head Start and TPS pre-K maintained some of their relative academic advantage eight years later!
Children from CAP entered kindergarten with roughly the same academic advantage as children from TPS pre-K. A 2016 study** of 1,278 students found that some of these positive effects persisted through middle school. CAP attendees showed slightly higher math scores than children who had not attended TPS pre-K or CAP, especially for Hispanic students. These students were also less likely to have repeated a grade (31% less than peers) or be chronically absent (34% less).
And what about children who attended Tulsa Public Schools? A 2018 publication*** found that, like CAP attendees, some of these kindergarten-entry effects were also still present for TPS pre-K participants in middle school. Researchers examined 8th grade outcomes for 1,992 students, including those who had left TPS for neighboring districts. Controlling for observable characteristics (such as race/ethnicity, gender, maternal education, and free and reduced price lunch eligibility status), TPS pre-K participants tended to have slightly higher scores on standardized math exams and were less likely to be held back a grade, similar to their Head Start peers. Additionally, these students were more likely enroll in honors coursework. These results were also similar for the sub-group of students from low-income households and for English Language Learner (ELL) students.
It’s important to point out that these effects were not seen for all groups of students. In particular, in both the CAP and TPS studies, subgroup analyses did not find statistically significant pre-K effects in seventh grade for Black students. Although the researchers suggest several possible reasons for these differential effects, it is still concerning that this group of students, who often face additional institutional barriers to quality education, do not seem to maintain their academic advantage from pre-K.
So, how generalizable is this success? As mentioned before, Oklahoma is sort of a special place (I say this with love, as a graduate of the University of Oklahoma!). Tulsa’s pre-K program was eight years old at the time of the evaluation, and this relative maturity means that many of the challenges associated with implementing a large-scale program had been addressed prior to research. This maturity, paired with high requirements for structural quality (such as teacher certification and student-teacher ratios), might also support Tulsa pre-K’s higher-than-typical Instructional Support scores. Determining what exactly is going right in Tulsa and how to apply it to other localities is challenging! Even though their “secret sauce” is still an open question, supporting quality, especially through teacher-child interactions, is certainly a key ingredient.
*Johnson, A.D., Markowitz, A.J., Hill, C.J., Phillips, D.A. (2016). Variation in impacts of Tulsa pre-K on cognitive development in Kindergarten: The role of Instructional Support. Developmental Psychology, 52(12). 2145-2158.
**Phillips, D., Gormley, W., & Anderson, S. (2016). The effects of Tulsa’s CAP Head Start program on middle-school academic outcomes and progress. Developmental Psychology, 52(8). 1247-1261.
***Gormley, W.T., Phillips, D., & Anderson, S. (2018). The effects of Tulsa’s pre-K program on middle school student performance. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(1). 63-87.
We’ve written before about the discipline disparities between children of color and their white peers. (Since that post was published last year, the Department of Education has released updated - but not improved - statistics on the topic.) But discipline is not the only school arena where children from different backgrounds have different experiences. There’s also evidence that racial bias affects teachers’ academic and behavioral expectations, even in early childhood.
One of my biggest takeaways from the childcare calculator we talked about recently was how much it would cost to increase early childhood educators’ wages. It wasn’t shocking—if you’re looking to get some laughs, ask any teacher you know if they’re in education to make big money—but it was a disappointing reminder of just how little we pay those who are shaping our future. The recently-released 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index gives us some specifics around compensation in early childhood education and care.
All across the world, researchers and educators are working on ways to help students learn. Some are small tweaks or classroom “lifehacks.” Some are big, expensive programs with huge ambitions. Some (like CLASS!) are paradigms about learning. When something works, you want it to be accessible to other practitioners. The problem is, many of the programs that are most effective also take a lot of time, money, or resources.
Most people I know who are invested in early childhood education look at Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address as an important moment. In it, Obama called on the federal government and states to work together to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” and talked about the economic and social impact of such policies. I teared up when I rewatched this speech. It’s powerful stuff. As it so often does, the conversation about early childhood education and care revolved around quality.