Study Backs Benefits of Preschool

The journal Developmental Psychology has just published new research suggesting that Oklahoma's pre-kindergarten program is a success at helping kids prepare for school. Oklahoma is one of the few states to offer preschool to every four-year-old.

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Here's a public education program that's working. Oklahoma is one of the few states to offer preschool to every four-year-old, and research published today in the journal Developmental Psychology says Oklahoma's program is getting kids better prepared for school. Michelle Trudeau reports.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

William Gormley and his team from Georgetown University say that Oklahoma's prekindergarten program is very unique.

Mr. WILLIAM GORMLEY (Georgetown University): It actually reaches more four-year-olds than any other state-funded prekindergarten program in the United States.

TRUDEAU: Twenty-six thousand children throughout Oklahoma. That's two-thirds of the state's four-year-olds.

Mr. GORMLEY: And it was interesting because Oklahoma decided to opt for a very high-quality program with college-educated teachers who were public school teachers and who would be paid at public school wages. That is very unusual for a massive state-funded preschool program.

TRUDEAU: The question, though, was whether it worked, so Oklahoma asked William Gormley to find out. Forty-five hundred children from Tulsa's pre-Ks and kindergartens were tested.

Mr. GORMLEY: When you test four-year-olds or five-year-olds, you ask, for example, if a child recognizes a letter. You ask a child to draw a letter. You ask a child to look at a picture, and the picture has two dogs, three geese and four cats, and you ask, `How many geese do you see?'

TRUDEAU: These are nationally normed tests that reveal a young child's rudimentary skills in reading, writing and math. Three groups of children were compared, those who were about to start pre-K, those who'd gone through pre-K the year before and those who had not gone to pre-K.

Mr. GORMLEY: Overall, the program is very effective. You see a seven-month gain in prereading skills, a six-month gain in prewriting skills and a four-month gain in premath skills, above and beyond what would otherwise have taken place. Those are enormous gains.

TRUDEAU: And the researchers found that while all children improved--blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians--the biggest gains were for Hispanic children.

Gormley says that full-day pre-K in Oklahoma costs about $3,800 per child. The bulk of this goes towards teachers' salaries, which are on average in Tulsa $35,000, unusually high compared with the $24,000 that preschool teachers typically make nationwide.

Mr. WALTER GILLIAM (Director, Edward Zigler Center in Child Development, Yale University): High-quality programs cost more than low-quality programs, and the reason why is simple.

TRUDEAU: That's Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development at Yale University.

Mr. GILLIAM: The quality of the program is predicated on the quality of the teacher, and high-quality teachers simply cost more, and they should.

TRUDEAU: Gilliam says this is a lesson for other states. By Oklahoma law, every lead teacher in every pre-K classroom must have a college degree and must have specialized training in how to teach young children. Gilliam describes what this looks like.

Mr. GILLIAM: Good teachers are able to engage the children. They're able to be omnipresent. They know what's going on in this corner of the room and have eyes in the back of their head to know what's going on in the other corner of the room. It's a very difficult job to do well. When it's done well, it looks like ballet. When it's done poorly, it looks like a train wreck.

TRUDEAU: And this study shows that Oklahoma's pre-K teachers are doing it well, because they're well-educated, well-trained and well-paid. And given that focus on teacher excellence, high-quality pre-K can work on a large scale. Tens of thousands of four-year-olds from very diverse social and racial backgrounds can be ready to learn, ready for school. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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