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Why Oklahoma's Universal Pre-K Is Successful

Feb 20, 2014

President Obama has vowed to offer federally-funded universal early childhood education. Oklahoma has been a model state for universal pre-kindergarten.

Since 1998, the state has funded early education for 4-year-olds, requiring certified teachers and small classes.

Last week, Steven Dow, executive director of Community Action Project (CAP) of Tulsa, the state’s largest anti-poverty problem that was involved in establishing pre-K as state policy, testified in front of the New York City Council on how Oklahoma’s program works.

Dow joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss Oklahoma’s pre-K program.


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President Obama continues to champion free universal pre-kindergarten. Detractors question the cost and success. But when the new mayor of New York sought advice on how to implement universal early childhood education, he got it from Oklahoma, a state widely held up as a model, and Steven Dow, who helped start Oklahoma's pre-K program in 1998.

Steven is director of CAP Tulsa, an anti-poverty nonprofit. So, Steven, why is Oklahoma's pre-K so successful?

STEVEN DOW: First and foremost, there was adequate funding to ensure that the program that we were delivering to 4-year olds was going to be a high-quality program. The research and evidence that has been done that distinguishes high quality early childhood efforts that produced not just short-term gains but gains that persist over time suggests that the key elements that are responsible for differentiating between efforts that are hugely impactful and those that are not as impactful have to do with the quality of the teaching and the interaction between the adults and children in the classroom.

YOUNG: So we understand in Oklahoma all pre-K teachers have to have a college degree, a certificate in early childhood education. They're paid the same as the K-12 teachers.

DOW: That's right. So we imbedded it in the school's state aid-funding formula so that there was a permanent, sustainable base and really made the public policy decision that we were going to equate the importance of teaching young children with the importance of teaching older children by making sure that there was an equal pay scale and equally qualified teachers in the early childhood pre-K rooms as there are in the rest of the classrooms.

YOUNG: You also have a student-teacher ratio that has to be at least 10-1, class sizes limited to 20. But how did you pay for this?

DOW: The key piece that we did in 1998 in Oklahoma was imbed pre-K within the state age funding formula for common education. So that we said that our state's common education system was no longer a K-12 system. Instead, it was a pre-K through 12 system. And schools that enrolled 4-year olds in pre-kindergarten - so long as they hired qualified staff and maintained the required ratios - would get funding from the state that was adequate to pay the real costs of delivering quality pre-K.

YOUNG: We understand you also allowed school districts to collaborate with federally funded programs like Head Start, churches, other outside organizations, so that you could, you know, have even more resources. And people say it works. Most of the studies show that Tulsa significantly improved young children's ability to identify letters, to spell, to solve problems, an average of five months ahead in pre-math and nine months ahead in pre-reading skills when they get into these, you know, move up into other grades. Just fantastic results and that's why Oklahoma is being singled out.

But you know the criticism, so let's just address it. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, they say that this pre-K leap isn't sustained beyond fourth grade. What do you say?

DOW: In the early experimental studies that really gave us the evidence base for understanding why early intervention is critical, those are studies that followed children from the time that they were in pre-K through their adult years. In fact, the most recent study of the Perry preschool cohort of children has been measuring the results at the time that they are age 40. So even in those small experimental studies: the Perry preschool study, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, there were short-term gains in what was being measured at that time, which was IQ, a couple of years after the early childhood intervention.

However, looking at the results over a very long period of time, the difference between the performance of those children who had early childhood education in terms of their graduation rates from high school, their attendance rates at college, their earnings over their lifetime, their reduced involvement in the criminal justice system, those are all things that proved out over a longer period of time.

If, in fact, there are problems with children who are not performing adequately a few years after they've been in pre-K and early childhood education, I think that the policy response should be to understand what is going on during those earliest elementary school years, which is not building on the very solid establishment and gains that have been made.

If I could use an analogy, if somebody is in a relay race and the first leg of the race the first runner comes into the race with a good lead and then hands the baton to the next runner and the lead that that first runner gave is reduced on the second leg, I don't think one would say that the first leg of the race and the first runner didn't do a good job.

YOUNG: Well, actually, researchers at Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the U.S. concur with you. And they point out that the accusation that the fourth grade reading scores aren't as good don't take into account, first of all, that there are shifting demographics during that period - many kids might have just entered the school system in fourth grade who weren't in the earlier pre-K - but also that the pre-K studies really aren't yet conclusive, that earlier studies might not yet have caught up with what - the reality that's happening right now, which is that that second runner actually isn't dropping the baton and isn't flagging as much as earlier reported.

It seems to boil down to, though, spending money. That you have to make that early investment for this to work, because other states have pre-K but it's not working as well, and they're just not spending the money early on.

DOW: Right. One of the things that most definitely we have learned is that when one goes from trying to replicate a very powerful study or intervention that's been done in a controlled environment with small numbers of children to something that is going to be operating across in an entire city like Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma is that it is critical to maintain fidelity to the key elements that were driving the outcomes. In this particular case, the key elements had to do with the quality of the teacher-child interaction and the curriculum that is being used. We insisted that there be adequate funding to ensure that those critical ingredients were going to be a part of how we implemented pre-K at scale.

YOUNG: Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa in Oklahoma where free universal pre-K is viewed as among the top programs in the nation. Steven, thanks for speaking to us about it.

DOW: Thank you.

YOUNG: And this is a story we want to stay on. So let us know if you have a local angle. Let us know at You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.