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What We’re Reading: Tulsa’s Pre-K is Showing Us All How It’s Done

30 Jan 2018 by Allie Kallmann

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.

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