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Can High-Quality Preschool Make A Big Difference Later On?


Now we turn to education for the youngest Americans. We're talking preschool here. President Obama has challenged the country to provide what he calls high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds. He mentioned this in his last two State of the Union addresses. Here he is earlier this year.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As Congress decides what it's going want to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K that they need. It is right for America. We need to get this done.

MARTIN: Now some 30 states are getting this done, investing more money in early childhood education. NPR's education team wanted to find out what that actually looks like, so they traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma. NPR education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez, is with us now to tell us more. Welcome back, Claudio. Thanks so much for joining us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Always good to be here.

MARTIN: So why has there been this push on pre-K education?

SANCHEZ: Because it's an obvious factor in how these kids do later on. It is a foundation. Now the politics of this has come together, as you mentioned - 30 states, red and blue states, Republicans, Democrats - have come together and said look, this is a good investment.

MARTIN: Now you decided to go to Tulsa because it's known for being a leader in what's called high-quality preschool programs. What is it that makes it a leader in this area? What stood out to you?

SANCHEZ: Well, first of all, they've been doing it for a while now. In 1999, Oklahoma created a statewide universal preschool program paid for with public funds, voluntary, but free to any family that wanted it. Not just poor families, but any family that sends their kids to public schools. You know, Tulsa is the biggest school district in Oklahoma, the most diverse. And I guess what people wanted to find out was does this investment pay off?

MARTIN: I'm going to play a clip from an interview that you had with Principal Howard Wible of the Porter Early Childhood Center. And he's talking about some of the students and what they're coming in with. I just want to play that clip.


HOWARD WIBLE: In my 34 years in education, we are seeing younger children come to school with more serious behavioral and emotional issues than ever before. And that's why we have a full time outside therapist in our building. We've got almost 30 of our 170 kids that work with her.

MARTIN: I was really intrigued by that because it made me wonder whether the early childhood intervention was about kind of getting kids an academic head start, or is it about catching some of these issues early?

SANCHEZ: It's both, Michel. Keep in mind that today we want these children to be ready to start school, to have had pre-literacy, pre-math orientation. But I think that the key here is how you do that by helping these children emotionally.

And, you know, one thing that researchers who looked at the Tulsa program found was that what teachers provide is what one called a sturdier path for these children because they're loved, they're cared for, they're valued. And that is such a key thing for these kids to be able to perform or be expected to perform well academically.

MARTIN: You also spoke to Deborah Phillips, a psychologist at Georgetown University, who's also studied the Tulsa program. She told you that some of the strongest advocates of pre-K are actually kindergarten teachers. Why is that?

SANCHEZ: Well, because, as she put it, they are most appreciative of the fact that these kids arrive with some degree of skills. They're not out of control as often - so many kids who don't get preschool often arrive with very few or very meager social skills.

MARTIN: One of the things you pointed out in the piece - I think it's easy for adults to forget is that going to this building every day, being away from parents, having to be in a group, having to raise your hand. Those are all things you have to learn.

SANCHEZ: And that's precisely what the teacher in our piece that we profiled said. She said, look, these kids come in here very apprehensive, not very trusting of adults sometimes. And so this is an opportunity for these kids to learn that there's nothing to be afraid of when they raise their hands, when they speak out. These are things that, you know, we assume kids do on their own, but they don't

MARTIN: Critics of this push on early childhood education point to programs like say, Head Start, right, which is specifically focused on lower income kids. And they say that there's little evidence that the benefit of even high quality preschool programs last beyond second or third grade. What's your take on that?

SANCHEZ: In terms of the Tulsa study, the payoff has been pretty conclusive. For every dollar that the program invests, they get $3 in return, mostly because these kids don't need special education remediation, special services down the road. So in terms of that program, that program does have long-term benefits. The bigger debate is whether most programs do. And unfortunately they're the - you know, it's not a good record.

The huge Head Start study that was done a few years ago showed that because most Head Start programs, in many cases, don't get nearly enough money - nearly as much as Tulsa gets - $7,500 per kid. They find that teachers that are hired are often unqualified, the curriculum isn't very good. So what you have is, down the road, you have a lot of kids who just don't demonstrate any real gains in terms of their academic preparation.

And that has given critics a lot of ammunition to say, look, we're spending a lot of money, and we're not getting anything in return. I think that there are several studies, including Tulsa. But one, the Abecedarian study out of North Carolina, that showed that, you know, long term there are definite gains - lower rates of teenage pregnancy, less likelihood of a public - depending on public assistance, less likely to be incarcerated. I mean there are long-term benefits from key programs that say this is money well spent.

MARTIN: We mentioned earlier, at the beginning of our conversation, that 30 states are committing more money to this. But do you think that we're at a tipping point now where generally it's understood that high-quality preschool programs do work because there are still some states where even kindergarten is not mandatory? So what do you think?

SANCHEZ: I think that it's at a very important political point in this larger discussion. I think the states have kind of - have pretty much concluded that this is a worthwhile investment - 30 states, at the very least, and others that are considering it.

There are several things that have to come together - not just the politics but also the funding. I mean, the funding is key to all this. The other is whether culturally we're going to begin to come to some common ground as to what the value of this is to society. What is its value to the United States of America and its economic, to put it bluntly, our economic future because, you know, we're now dealing with a situation in which we're struggling to find qualified workers?

We say that our kids just don't learn enough in high school, that they're struggling in college. Well, a foundation for all of this has to be very early on. Nobody disputes that. People think that, you know, that if we do the right thing by these kids early on, prepare them, give them that access to high-quality programs, then we can begin to debate, you know, what else is wrong with this pipeline? But if you don't have that foundation, then it's a moot issue.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Claudio, thanks so much for joining us once again.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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