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Results From Long-Running Study Bolster Case for Universal Pre-K

Students who attended Tulsa program had higher on-time graduation rates and were more likely to vote, researchers say

Oklahoma launched its universal pre-K program in 1998. Researchers have been closely following the impact on students who attended the program in the Tulsa Public Schools. (Tulsa Public Schools)

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The latest results of the longest-running study of state-funded pre-K in the nation strengthen the case for universal programs open to all young children.

Released Tuesday by researchers at Georgetown University, the results show that young adults who attended a universal pre-K program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as 4-year-olds were more likely to graduate from high school on time and enroll in college than peers who didn’t attend.

They’re also more civically engaged. The percentage of former pre-K students who registered to vote and actually cast ballots was 4.5 points higher than for those who started kindergarten without pre-K.

“Middle class kids benefit from a strong program,” said William Gormley, a professor and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. “Disadvantaged kids benefit even more.”

Presented at Georgetown, the findings, based on a sample of over 4,000 students, build on more than two decades of work from Gormley and colleagues to determine the lasting benefits of state-funded preschool programs. The researchers also discussed new results from a second study that shed light on whether the benefits of pre-K withstood the pandemic.

At a time when schools are under pressure to reverse learning loss and increase performance beyond pre-pandemic levels, Gormley stressed that classroom quality and connections to the K-12 system matter. 

In an interview, he acknowledged recent disappointing results from Tennessee showing worse results for those who attended that state’s program. Tennessee’s program primarily serves those from low-income families. The Vanderbilt University study concluded that improving the quality of the elementary schools those students later attend could boost results, and the state has since made improvements. Gormley said that because Oklahoma’s program has always been open to all 4-year-olds, not just poor children, there’s a stronger effect on the K-12 system.

Oklahoma launched its program in 1998 as essentially a new grade level. Seventy percent of the state’s 4-year-olds participated in 2020, but enrollment dropped to 64% during the pandemic. Teachers are fully credentialed and receive additional early-childhood training. Originally, classes were primarily in elementary schools. In Tulsa, many are also in “well-staffed” Head Start centers, which, Gormley said, likely contributed to stronger results.

While President Joe Biden campaigned on adding two years of free preschool to the public education system, he failed to get the proposal through Congress. For now, states wanting to emulate Oklahoma’s model are on their own

“I would love to see the federal government step up and do more in early childhood,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. He joined the event virtually to discuss the 2020 state ballot measure establishing a nicotine tax to pay for preschool for all 4-year-olds. “If it can pass in a purple state like Colorado with 67% of the vote, there ought to be a package that gets 65 or 70 votes in the U.S. Senate.” 

Colorado became the eighth state with universal pre-K. Polis, who championed the effort, signed legislation in May creating the program. While the law guarantees children 10 hours of pre-K per week, starting in the fall of 2023, he said he hopes most districts will push beyond that to at least 12 hours.

But he said many policymakers are reluctant to consider benefits that won’t emerge until children are in high school. 

“In the short term, I think one of the appeals to the business community, to many Republicans, is the workforce benefit,” he said. “This empowers a second parent returning to work, helps a single mom struggling to get by.”

A frequent argument against public funding for pre-K is that any boost in achievement in the early grades fades by the time children reach third grade and beyond. Anna Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown who is leading a second Tulsa pre-K study, noted that the gains for former pre-K students don’t disappear. Children who did not attend catch up after entering school.

Gormley’s research shows that some advantages of attending pre-K persist well beyond the early grades, while there are little to no positive effects in other areas.

For example, earlier findings from the Tulsa study showed that in high school, former pre-K students were less likely to fail classes and repeat a grade, and were more likely to take advanced courses. But they didn’t have higher test scores or grades than those who weren’t in the program. 

When researchers examined student performance in middle school, they saw no impact of pre-K on students’ attitudes toward school and their likelihood of risky behavior, including smoking, drug use or early sexual activity. But those who attended pre-K were more likely to take honors courses and have better attendance. 

“Researchers who study early-childhood should not put all their eggs in a standardized test basket,” Gormley said. “There are lots of other crazy, scary, but wonderful things happening to kids’ lives. It’s a mistake to avoid those other choices.” 

Pandemic-era data

Emerging results of the second research project focus on children only from low-income families who began Head Start at 3 and entered Tulsa’s pre-K program at 4. They were in first grade when the pandemic began.

The researchers, led by Johnson and Deborah Phillips of Georgetown, found learning “stagnation” and noted that children’s home lives before the pandemic predicted whether they were able to keep learning when schools closed. If there wasn’t enough to eat, parents were depressed or the environment was chaotic, children were less likely to participate in remote learning.

But despite school closures, they found that last school year, third graders who had two years of preschool still had more complex vocabularies and stronger math skills than those who did not . They were also better able to manage their behavior and emotions and had better working memories — what Johnson calls a “mental desktop.”

“These are the skills that underlie success in school and in life,” she said.

Phillips, a psychology professor at Georgetown who has worked with Gormley on the study from the beginning, said both studies reveal elements of high-quality programs, such as well-trained teachers and support for instruction, that contribute to strong results. 

Policymakers, she said, shouldn’t cut corners.

“Don’t take anything away from it. Keep your [bachelor’s]-level teachers. Keep the incredible professional development that you do,” she said. “Don’t feel like ‘We can start chipping away at it.’ That would be a really bad thing.”

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