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The federal government spends almost $8 billion a year on preschool programs. States spend billions more, mostly on low-income four-year-olds. But it's hard to say what's working and what's not. President Obama has long been a champion of early childhood education. On talking about preschool, he often uses the same two words: high quality. Take this line from this year's State of the Union Address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high quality early education.
CORNISH: But what does high quality mean? Claudio Sanchez with NPR's education team went in search of an answer and found one in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: At 7:35 A.M., three yellow school buses drive up to Porter Early Childhood Center. Diesel fumes cling to the cold morning air.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
SANCHEZ: The doors swing open. A flock of four and five-year-olds spill onto a walkway leading up to the school's main entrance.
TRACY JONES: Morning, Takila(ph). Who's the note for, your teacher?
JONES: Well, happy birthday.
SANCHEZ: Tracy Jones, the school's secretary, greets them - some still groggy from the 45-minute ride. Jones asks the bus drivers to make sure no one's been left asleep in the back of their buses.
JONES: We deep?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yep.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
SANCHEZ: Past the school's steel double doors, Howard Wible, the principal, is waiting in the gymnasium.
HOWARD WIBLE: Good morning, Porter ECDC students. Let's all stand up for...
SANCHEZ: An affable, burly man in his late 50s, Wible is known to dress up as Winnie the Pooh on special occasions. But today, he's just happy to lead the children in a few stretching exercises and a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANCHEZ: Wible quiets kids down and sends them off with a message.
WIBLE: Let's have a wonderful day. Listen to your teachers. Do what she tells you to do. Be kind to everyone.
SANCHEZ: Early childhood experts who've studied Tulsa's pre-school program say this is what high quality looks and feels like, which is why we're here, to see for ourselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
SANCHEZ: It's now 8:30, time for breakfast.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I like macaroni and cheese. And I would like it for dinner, too.
SANCHEZ: No such luck for this four-year-old. He'll have to settle for toast, scrambled eggs, potatoes, milk and cereal. Next stop, teacher Niki Jones' classroom.
NIKI JONES: OK. Let's first start...
SANCHEZ: Jones, 32, has only been teaching for a couple of years. She's firm yet gentle as she rounds up her kids and sits them on a big, shaggy rug.
JONES: Let's first start with our poem that we started practicing on Monday.
SANCHEZ: It's now just past 10 A.M. and Jones has moved on to one of the more interesting features of the Tulsa preschool program: Letting kindergartners read to preschoolers. All eyes turn to a five-year-old named Madison.
MADISON: (Reading) "The Foot Book." Left foot, left foot, right foot, right. Feet in the morning. Feet at night.
SANCHEZ: Madison is a hit.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hip-hip, hooray.
JONES: Thank you, Madison, for coming to read to us today.
MADISON: You're welcome.
JONES: See you next Wednesday.
All right, I'm going to draw your a sticker and you're going to tell me where you're going to go play first today.
SANCHEZ: Now, this is what four year olds live for: Playtime. They have several options: computers; the tiny kitchen tucked in a corner of the room; something called The Fort, which doubles as the art center or, as kids refer to it, where all the paints are.
As far as Jones is concerned, play is at the heart of the preschool experience.
JONES: I try to have an hour and a half to two hours of uninterrupted play. The play is open-ended so we put out objects that aren't task-oriented. That way they aren't limited to what they can do with them. So it builds problem-solving, imagination, creativity - things like that.
SANCHEZ: That explains the kids' artwork hanging from the ceiling and plastered on the walls. Square cows, a snowman with rabbit ears, lots of stick figures, hearts and squiggly lines, really.
Children roam freely. Jones hovers, constantly assessing everything they do.
JONES: They're having to collaborate in a developmental phase where they're still very ego-centric. They're very all about themselves.
SANCHEZ: Jones is watchful of how kids resolve disputes, their vocabulary, their familiarity with numbers. The role of the teacher in all this, researchers say, is the foundation of a high quality preschool program.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS: I've been studying child care my whole life.
SANCHEZ: Deborah Phillips is a developmental psychologist and professor at Georgetown University.
PHILLIPS: What you're going to look for is a teacher who knows how to instruct children in pre-literacy skills, pre-math skills, who gets down on the child's level when they're talking to them and is respectful towards them.
SANCHEZ: Phillips was the lead researcher in an exhaustive study of the Tulsa program. For seven months she and her team observed teachers in dozens of classrooms. She found four basic reasons why the Tulsa program is of such high quality. First, it has a rich curriculum that revolves around an abundance of rich play, like we've been hearing. Second, it's well-funded at about $7,500 per child. Third, there's one teacher for every 10 children. And fourth, all the teachers are highly qualified.
Niki Jones, for example, is a few credits shy of her masters degree and has already been accepted in a doctorate program. Tulsa requires at least a bachelor's degree. Teachers must be fully certified in early childhood education. And once they're hired, they get training once a month.
JONES: You want a match to mother?
SANCHEZ: Jones is brimming with ideas and strategies rooted in research and good pedagogy.
JONES: If I give them pine cones and acorns and then a projector that they can manipulate the light on, well, then they have shadows. Then they have color blending with glass beads. They have so many things they can experience that I can't put into a lesson.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
SANCHEZ: So what looks like an arts project - with acorns, pine cones and beads - is also a stealth math lesson. Jones says her kids love to count, add and subtract with little or no direct instruction. But does this kind of program have lasting benefits? That is, after all, the one big argument against increased funding for preschool, that kids are no better off as they move up in grade.
PHILLIPS: There is evidence of lasting impacts in Tulsa.
SANCHEZ: At least up through third grade, says researcher Deborah Phillips.
PHILLIPS: The children who went through Tulsa preschool program, as compared to their peers who did not, are doing better in math, in particular. And that's especially true for boys and especially true for the lower income children.
SANCHEZ: Niki Jones says preschool is all about building that lasting foundation, although it's not easy for most four-year-olds.
JONES: You're asking kids to do things they've never done before. They've never been in school before. They've never raised their hand and stood up and given an answer before. So it's scary to them.
SANCHEZ: They're scared to fail, says Jones. Wait a minute. These are four year olds. They're scared to fail?
JONES: They've seen failure and they've already seen scary things. And so they are.
SANCHEZ: Jones says many of these children are growing up with only one parent in Tulsa's toughest neighborhoods; poverty and failure are all around them.
JONES: Without the family connection, we wouldn't know if so-and-so didn't have dinner or if so-and-so's mom got put in jail last night because parents aren't going to tell you that, if they don't trust you. That's embarrassing.
SANCHEZ: Phillips agrees. That trust is really important for a teacher to be able to connect with kids.
PHILLIPS: But also the extent to which she provides strong emotional and social support for the children makes them feel safe, protected, loved, valued.
SANCHEZ: And if they get that...
PHILLIPS: They're motivated. They love school. You're setting children along a much sturdier, promising pathway into their futures.
SANCHEZ: That's what Tulsa's preschool program is doing, says Phillips. That's why it's a model for the nation.
PHILLIPS: If it can happen in Oklahoma, right, in theory, it can happen everywhere.
SANCHEZ: And with some 30 states now embarked on preschool expansion, someday soon Tulsa could be the rule not the exception.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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