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Early Childhood Education

February 18, 2013

President Obama made a splash during his State of the Union Address to Congress last week talking about Pre-K programs. Here’s the text of his remarks:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.

I don’t want to discuss the president’s speech or whether any federal programs should be expanded to allow all states to have programs like ours. I want to discuss the emerging local response to this part of the speech and where Oklahoma stands moving forward.

Several conservative pundits – local and national – have questioned the usefulness of state-run early childhood programs. All seem to have taken their talking points from the Heritage Foundation, which claims that Head Start and Early Childhood Education programs have no benefit to children. They also claim that fourth grade reading scores (based on NAEP ) have declined since the state began funding Pre-K. School choice advocates in our state who want vouchers to pay for their own children to be homeschooled have glommed onto these beliefs, repeating them without any fact-checking.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has state-by-state information on early childhood programs. Their report on Oklahoma gives this background:

In 1980, Oklahoma established the Early Childhood Four-Year-Old Program, a pilot preschool education program, with the goal of eventually serving all 4-year-olds in the state. In 1990, the program received statewide funding, though enrollment was limited to those 4-year-olds who were eligible for the federal Head Start program. Districts were allowed to provide the program to additional 4-year-olds through local funds or tuition if they chose. Oklahoma became the second state in the nation to offer free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998. Over the years, enrollment in the Early Childhood Four-Year-Old Program has steadily increased. Currently, the program is offered in 98 percent of school districts.

If we want to look at the impact of the program, the earliest students to track are those who would have been in Pre-K during the 1998-99 school year. Those students would have reached fourth grade – the first NAEP tested year – in the 2002-03 school year. Using 2002 NAEP fourth grade reading results as a benchmark then Oklahoma has made gains since the state began fully funding Pre-K.

Year

Average Scale Score

2011

215

2009

217

2007

217

2005

214

2003

214

2002

213

The gains are not that large, but they are present, and they seem to have hit a ceiling after 2007. During that same time, though, subgroup data reveals even more.

Group

Average Scale Score Gain

Male

+3

Female

+2

Econ. Disadvantaged

+5

Not Econ. Disadvantaged

+1

White

+1

Black

+11

Hispanic

+10

Native American

+3

In each grouping above, gaps have been closed. Male students inched closer to their female peers. Students eligible for free/reduced lunch made great strides compared with those who are not. And Black, Hispanic, and Native American students have really worked to close achievement gaps.

I will not make the mistake of ascribing these gains to Oklahoma’s Pre-K program. This is one measurement alone. It is reassuring to see gaps closing, and the total education climate – consisting of many variables – has contributed to this trend. It does show, however, that the persistent narrative of OCPA, Cato, and Heritage is completely false.

If anything, Oklahoma’s Pre-K program helps the students who need it the most. One thing we know is that factors such as parental educational attainment, household income, and something as simple as the number of books present in the home are strong predictors of Kindergarten readiness. Funding Early Childhood Education has the greatest benefits for students not having these benefits.

At this time, state support – both financial and programmatic – is in jeopardy. The SDE has not had an Early Childhood director in its curriculum program since summer, while other parts of the agency are increasing in staff. Meanwhile, work that had been planned on aligning state Pre-K standards to lead into the Common Core State Standards has gone nowhere. At This Land Press, you can read another report on the importance of Oklahoma’s program – including concerns about how the state’s decreased support for all education programs is going to impact Pre-K.

Ultimately, without adequate funding and administrative support, Oklahoma Pre-K – as all programs – will suffer. More than most programs, though, the students who won’t be served are those most in need. Remember, as you are inundated with yet more talking points imported from national groups, that Oklahoma supports Early Childhood Education, and that this is a good thing.

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  1. February 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm
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