Oklahoma may win accolades year after year for its state-funded preschool program, but scores on the so-called Nation’s Report Card show the state’s fourth grade reading scores have been falling for the past decade. A recent article by Oklahoma’s News On 6 ponders the discrepancy:
“The most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading and math scores show that the scores of Oklahoma fourth graders, relative to the national average, have declined over the roughly ten-year period since the state became the leader in early childhood education.
How can this be?
There have been numerous studies (including a 2004 Georgetown University study conducted in the Tulsa Public School district) that show a direct correlation between enrollment in a pre-kindergarten class and improved language and pre-math skills. The studies are unambiguous in concluding that a child who attends pre-school in Oklahoma is more ready to learn upon entering kindergarten than a child who has not had attended pre-school. And yet test scores indicate the benefit doesn’t last.”
It’s a perennial question for early education advocates: How do you combat academic fade-out? The article suggests that one of the problems may be that the program does not reach all kids.
Another issue could be that Oklahoma’s program is not very intense. Fade-out tends to happen even with the most comprehensive pre-kindergarten models, and the state’s universal program only covers four-year-olds and only requires a minimum of a half-day, not the full-day that educators say is more effective. Recently the state has been adding three year olds to the pre-K rolls, but only through a relatively small pilot program.
Digging deeper into the NAEP data shows some reasons to be more positive about Oklahoma’s performance. The state’s minority populations, particularly Hispanics, are growing rapidly, while the white population is on the decline. Yet the achievement gap has gotten smaller.
Although more than half of black fourth grades aren’t proficient in reading (that number crept back up to 59% in 2009 after dropping to 54%, its lowest level ever, in 2007), it used to be that more than two thirds couldn’t read on grade level by fourth grade. The percentage of proficient Hispanic fourth graders has also inched up – 47% were proficient in 2009. Native American students in Oklahoma, a relatively large group, do much better than the national average, with about two thirds above the proficiency level, a number that has also improved.
The gains aren’t huge, but they do suggest that Oklahoma’s early education efforts, while perhaps not a ringing success, shouldn’t necessarily be written off as a failure either based on the state’s NAEP performance.
At a time when many states are having to scale back on long-planned pre-kindergarten expansions, Oklahoma is taking advantage of $15 million in stimulus funds to help support three new early childhood centers, according to published accounts.
Oklahoma is is indeed facing tough fiscal times. Gov. Brad Henry has noted that state revenues are declining, but has pushed for the early childhood programs with the help of the Kaiser Family Foundation and matching funds from the Tulsa Public Schools.
Oklahoma has long been thought of as a leader in early childhood education, especially the state’s emphasis on enrolling disadvantaged children. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact the early childhood education centers will have on education in the state in the years to come.
Henry is making some pretty big promises, and the press — along with researchers — are going to have to do a lot of follow-up work to get a sense of both the quality and the impact the new centers will have in Tulsa and beyond.
“They will be the first of their kind in the nation,” Henry said during his annual state-of-the-state speech to the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce this week, according to the Tulsa World. “Tulsa will continue to be a leader in early childhood education.”
What kind of a leader remains to be seen.
Coming up on Wednesday: Pre-K Now’s annual “Votes Count” report, which monitors changes in states’ budgets for pre-kindergarten. Conference call on Wednesday with Libby Doggett of Pre-K Now, a representative from Oklahoma (“one of the best”) and a representative from Kansas (“one of the worst”). Information for the call available from Holly Higgins at Pre-K Now. contact info: 202.834.6846, firstname.lastname@example.org
Following up on the attention paid to the new Bill Gormley study of the effects of the state’s $7,000 per year prekindergarten program I came across this ABC television report from May. It shows the power of television when done well. I particularly liked the video of a kindergartner who had attended pre-k writing letters (steady, clear, nicely formed) while, on a split screen, a kindergartner who had not gone to pre-k tried to do the same. (wobbly lines, some unrecognizable letters, slower).
The ABC report quoted candidate Obama saying he supported pre-k because it would return $10 for every dollar invested. I’ve now come across economic returns estimates of between $2.36 and $17 for each dollar invested. (See Clive Belfield’s report as well as this oneby Steve Aos at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.)
Not sure where Obama’s number comes from but what’s important is that each of these studies makes different assumptions, uses different methodologies for evaluating costs and savings, and covers different time periods. Point is that even the lowest estimate shows a better than one-to-one return. That return has to be evaluated against the returns from other social interventions, some of which are highly targeted and others, such as public schooling in general, that are universal.
(New study shows Oklahoma’s public pre-kindergarten to be effective)
Two interesting and very different studies have emerged this week on pre-kindergarten quality and effectiveness, including a surprisingly critical finding from Georgia,the first state to offer universal pre-kindergarten.
The state once hailed as a model, it seems, no longer leads the the nation in enrollment, high-quality standards or per-pupil spending, according the report by the Southern Education Foundation, picked up in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Pre-school access in the state is limited by a new population growth, including an influx of new immigrants.Georgia’s per-pupil expenditure now ranks 22 against 38 other state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, the report notes, leaving lots of unanswered follow-up questions for journalists.
A study of 3,500 children in Oklahoma, meanwhile, found that pre-kindergarten programs set children up for later success in school, by strengthening reading, writing and math skills. The study published in the journal Science also found the state’s pre-kindergarten program to have relatively high standards, pay and benefits to well-qualified teachers.
Participation in Tulsa’s public pre-school program increased cognitive development significantly, along with pre-reading, writing and math skills, the study found. Children who participated in Head Start also improved their cognitive skills, though less dramatically.
William T. Gormley, lead author of the study, is the co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. (CROCUS) at Georgetown University. He believes a strong preschool program can lessen “negative effects,” of family and environmental risk factors. Copies of the report are available at the AAAS Office of Public Programs at 202-326-6440 or
Oklahoma has been an interesting state to watch because more of its 4-year-olds attend public pre-school than in any other state. Other studies have also found that Oklahoma’s program improves children’s language, literacy and mathematical skills; including a December, 2006 report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.
(Early reading or book eating?)
A story in The Sun about a class of pre-kindergarten students in Oklahoma who are “already reading,” caught my eye this week, in part because I’m always on the look out for ways in which we are pressuring children to hurry up and master skills.
Turns out, while some of these four-year-olds are finishing beginner books, most are simply memorizing a sentence or two, according to the article.The story is sweet, and filled with quotes praising the administrators and teachers for being supportive and creative and for pushing the students. What it doesn’t do is examine a longstanding debate about the appropriate age to teach reading.
There are plenty of people who do not believe formal learning should start for children until they are seven, including Lilian Katz,, a professor of education at Illinois University
Katz last year addressed an international conference on nursery school at Oxford University in England, and told the U.K. newspaper The Guardian that teaching children to read and write too early can dent their interest in books later on.
In Sweden, children do not star formal instruction until six or seven. I know one thing from my own experience. For the first few years, any book I put in front of my children ended up in the same place — their mouth. I do think the issue how reading is taught, what books are introduced and what the right age to get kids started is a fascinating one, especially at a time when public school children are taking standardized tests earlier — and more often.
Ezra Klein, who blogs for the American Prospect, chides liberals for not getting behind universal prekindergarten. He says research shows universal prekindergarten is “tremendously cost effective” and produces “massive educational benefits.” He bolsters his case with a link to the well-known William Gormley study of the universal program in Oklahoma. Gormley’s study does, indeed, show positive results from the program but the biggest gains were made by Latino children learning English. To quote Gormley: “Preliminary results from a growing body of research on the
effects of pre-K programs are encouraging, but not entirely con-
vincing.” He also cites Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman as supporting universal prekindergarten. Heckman, however, is something of a thorn in the side of supporters of universal programs because he actually says the higher payoff comes from targeted programs: “There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”
Klein knows this but has ignored the distinction in the past as well.
Nicole Christian wrote a compelling editorial in the Detroit Free Press this past weekend, arguing that even though strong evidence for the effectiveness of high quality pre-kindergarten eminated from the state, the state’s political leaders have not built on that legacy. She acknowledges that the state is struggling economically, as the auto industry tries to avoid complete collapse. But she says state political leaders could set what she calls a “committed, consistent political tone” in favor of expanding pre-kindergarten. Such a tone would inspire corporate and foundation leaders to get on board and create momentum. That’s the strategy used in a number of other states that are now ahead of Michigan, which has sacrificed its early lead in the area.
Out in Spokane, Gary Crooks wrote an editorial in the Spokesman Review making the case that Idaho, one of 11 states that do not invest in pre-kindergarten programs, ought to learn a lesson from other states. He cites the case of Oklahoma, another conservative, relatively poor state that has made a commitment to preschool and the results it is getting, The editorial concludes by saying “let’s hope the legislature can close their own learning gap.”