“I wanted my son to learn,” explains Maria Mauricio, who lives in the low-income Tulsa neighborhood of Kendall-Whittier. Her four-year-old son, Gabriel, attends pre-K through Educare, another local Head Start provider. A stay-at-home mom of five, Mauricio could have kept Gabriel with her during the day. When she was growing up in Mexico, Mauricio went to school only through seventh grade, stopping so she could help her grandmother support the family by picking peanuts. She wanted more for her son, who, by the age of two, wasn’t speaking either English or Spanish understandably, partly because of hearing problems. Mauricio felt confident that starting school early would give Gabriel the best shot at success.
There are mountains of data to confirm Mauricio’s hunch. Economically disadvantaged children who take part in a high-quality pre-K program go on to do better academically. They’re less likely to need special education, less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school. Perhaps more important are the other ways they fare better: Attending pre-K lowers their chances of becoming pregnant as a teen, abusing or neglecting their own children when they become parents, and winding up incarcerated or dependent on public benefits as an adult.
The most dramatic illustration of these gains comes out of the Perry preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Started in the early 1960s as an effort to improve the academic performance of low-income students, the Perry program enrolled three- and four-year-olds who performed poorly on tests and had low IQ scores. The early results were impressive. Those who went through the half-day Perry program had higher IQs when the program ended at age 5. The longer-term benefits were even more stunning. At age 14, there were moderate to large differences between the test scores of Perry preschool kids and those who didn’t go through the program. At 27, they drank and smoked less. At 40, they were less likely to have been arrested and far outearned their peers. A cost-benefit analysis of Perry provided incontrovertible evidence of the money that could be saved in the long term by working with such young kids. By the time the Perry preschoolers reached age 27, every public dollar spent on their early education yielded a savings of $7.16.
But compelling as the Perry study was, it was based on only 58 preschool students, and all were poor and African American. Another well-studied preschool, the Carolina Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, had similarly impressive results but was also small and exclusively for poor children. As the idea of universal pre-K began to grow around the country, its opponents homed in on the fact that the most clear-cut benefits had been for poor kids. Since there hadn’t been large-scale studies of the long-term benefits of pre-K on middle-class kids, they argued, it wasn’t worth educating all four-year-olds in tight budgetary times. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney used this logic when he vetoed a 2006 bill unanimously approved by the legislature that would have set up a statewide pre-K program.
In 2002, Bill Gormley, a Georgetown University professor, saw Oklahoma’s program as an opportunity to study the impact of early education on all kids. Because pre-K in Oklahoma cost around $7,500 per child—more than the national average but still far less than the intensive Abecedarian and Perry programs—he could measure the benefits of a four-year-old program with a more acceptable price tag. Because Oklahoma’s pre-K was not just high-quality but also delivered on a massive scale, he could address the question of whether it could do more than level the playing field for poor kids.
The Tulsa Public School District, the largest in the state, offered an ideal place to get results from the statewide experiment. While there’s plenty of poverty in Tulsa, more than 15 percent of students are middle-class. Unlike most of the kids previously studied, Tulsa’s population is multiracial, with almost equal numbers of white, African American, and Hispanic kids, as well as a slightly smaller group of Native Americans. Oklahoma law also requires that all children be evaluated when they enter kindergarten, so Gormley was able to use those results to compare kids who had attended pre-K with those who hadn’t.
The gains he found in 2002-2003 were among the biggest ever documented for a universal pre-K program. By the time they started kindergarten, pre-K kids were nine months ahead of their peers with the skills necessary for reading, like recognizing letters and being able to tell stories. They were seven months ahead in pre-writing, including the ability to hold a pencil, and five months ahead in counting and other pre-math skills. The four-year-olds who had been through CAP’s Head Start, as opposed to the regular state pre-K program in Tulsa public schools, were equally ahead in math, though not quite as dramatically ahead when it came to early literacy. (This is likely because Head Start, in addition to its academic goals, has a broader mission, including improving children’s health, establishing their sense of responsibility to society, and increasing their self-worth.) The most impressive part was that the gains were throughout this entire population. Though the poorest kids were helped the most, all of Tulsa’s kids got a boost from pre-K.
More Pre-K on the Range
Part 5: Why can’t the rest of the country catch up to Oklahoma in early learning?