Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program had an unusual beginning. Almost 20 years after it was surreptitiously slipped into a 1998 bill as an amendment, it has become a prominent example of the potential of public early education programs. It is also being measured by the first long-term study on universal, school-based pre-K, conducted in Tulsa by researchers from Georgetown University. Recent results show that some benefits of this (very) red state’s pre-K investments persist into the eighth grade.
Years ago, the renowned Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects showcased the promise of high-quality pre-K, but critics have doubted whether scaled-up programs could replicate their impressive long-term benefits. A 2015 study on Tennessee’s targeted pre-K program, which found that the benefits of pre-K were not measurable after kindergarten, sparked more skepticism about the effectiveness of large public pre-K programs.
Student outcomes in Tulsa suggest that high-quality, universal pre-K is scalable. The longitudinal study by William Gormley, Deborah Phillips, and Sara Anderson finds that middle school students who attended pre-K had higher math test scores, were more likely to take honors courses, and were less likely to be held back a grade.
These measures matter as all are predictors of future student success: higher math test scores suggest later academic success, enrollment in higher-level courses helps students to become college- and career-ready, and lower rates of grade retention are correlated with increased earnings and crime reduction. However, it’s worth noting that the researchers did not find a positive impact on other factors they expected quality pre-K to affect, such as reading test scores. The Georgetown researchers will continue to follow these students to see if there is a correlation between quality pre-K and success in high school and beyond.
They also hypothesize that the broad accessibility of Tulsa’s pre-K program helped prepare so many students for the K–12 system that teachers could increase the academic rigor of their instruction. If this is the case, then the Tulsa study shows that school readiness — what many see as the most significant benefit of quality pre-K — is the necessary foundation for a student’s future success.
The study does indicate that some populations benefited more than others. Hispanic students benefited more than their black peers. One explanation for this difference offered by the researchers is that “black students have more limited access to better schools and better teachers” in K–12, and, therefore, the benefits of pre-K diminish quicker. Another explanation for the difference is that black students were more likely to be enrolled in an early learning program before the introduction of universal pre-K, while Hispanic students were more likely to stay at home — meaning there was additional room for Hispanic students to improve. Additionally, prior research suggests dual language learners benefit more from formal pre-K than English-only students because of the increased exposure to English in a classroom setting versus an at-home setting. Students from low-income families also benefited more from Tulsa’s program compared to their well-off peers (who were more likely to have attended high quality pre-K prior to the introduction of universal pre-K).
Despite these gaps between student populations, it is important to emphasize that all students in Tulsa — regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic background — benefited from universal pre-K through seventh grade.
The Georgetown researchers hypothesize that the difference in outcomes between the Tulsa study and the aforementioned Tennessee study are due to Tulsa’s superior program quality. Every teacher in the Tulsa pre-K program has at least a bachelor’s degree and a certification in early childhood education. To recruit and retain qualified teachers, Tulsa pays pre-K teachers on par with K–12 teachers. While requiring bachelor's degrees for early childhood educators has stirred controversy in recent months, the Tulsa evaluation is one of many to demonstrate a favorable relationship between college-educated teachers and strong student outcomes. The program also keeps student-teacher ratios low, at one teacher per ten students. Tulsa’s investment in hiring quality teachers and creating manageable class sizes appears to have a positive impact on the quality of instruction: Tulsa teachers are more likely to engage their students in how and why discussions and are more likely to encourage participation from all students than those in other state pre-k programs. These high-quality teacher/student interactions are invaluable to student learning.
Surprisingly, Tulsa’s pre-K also indicates that quality does not necessarily have to be cost prohibitive. Tulsa’s program currently costs around $10,000 per student. This is more than the average state currently spends on pre-K, but significantly less than the Abecedarian Project’s $20,000 per child (in 2017 dollars). And the benefits of Tulsa’s pre-K program are estimated to outweigh the costs by 2-to-1. This number captures projected earnings increases and crime reduction for pre-K participants due to their lower rates of grade retention. The researchers expect the benefit-cost ratio to be higher when benefits from other variables such as higher math test scores are factored in.
The Tulsa study shows that high-quality, universal pre-K can yield long-term benefits for kids. Unfortunately, Oklahoma is currently making significant cuts to funding for its K–12 system. To continue to reap the rewards of the state’s impressive universal pre-K investment — and to sustain the gains made in pre-K — Oklahoma needs to provide students access to high-quality education in K–3 and beyond. Pre-K is not a cure-all that will shield children from the impact of a poorly funded public school system. Instead, the Tulsa study proves that quality universal pre-K education benefits all participants by setting a stable foundation for students’ success.