10 Years In, Tulsa's Pre-K Investment Is Paying Off
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Back in 2005, researchers began tracking a group of children in Tulsa, Okla. They wanted to see if a high-quality preschool program would make a difference and would help these kids perform better once they reached high school. Well, we're 10 years along now and NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on what researchers discovered.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Fourteen-year-old Jose Arriaga doesn't know it, but researchers have been tracking him since he was 4 years old, waiting for the day he would start ninth grade.
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SANCHEZ: Well, that day is today. And Booker T. Washington High School has prepared a big, loud welcome for new and returning students. Jose tested into Booker T. Washington High, a selective public school in north Tulsa. And no one's more proud than his mother, Veronica Arriaga.
VERONICA ARRIAGA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Mrs. Arriaga says Jose maintained straight A's through middle school. That's why he's here. She's convinced preschool gave him a big jump-start. Jose agrees.
JOSE ARRIAGA: 'Cause once I got into kindergarten, into first grade, I knew, like, to count, to read and then everything just got easier from there. It was like poca a poquito cada cosa.
SANCHEZ: Step by step, Jose says in Spanish, preschool put him on the right path. Now there's research that says the same is true for most of the kids who came out of Tulsa's pre-K program in 2005.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS: These children did show huge gains in early math, in early literacy skills.
SANCHEZ: Deborah Phillips, a developmental psychologist at Georgetown University, is the lead researcher overseeing a study of preschoolers in Tulsa. With an unusually generous amount of state funding, educators here have created what experts call, one of the best high-quality preschool programs in the country. And Phillips says her research now shows precisely how children benefited over time.
PHILLIPS: They we're more likely to be engaged in school, less timid in the classroom and more attentive. So we gave them a good strong boost into elementary school. Now we fast forward and we looked at the children again last year when they were starting eighth grade.
SANCHEZ: Phillips says this is one of the most exhaustive studies of its kind. It didn't just look at grades and test scores. It also looked at student mobility, whether kids were in advanced or special education classes, retention, absenteeism and even surveyed kids' attitudes about school. Phillips' team then compared these eighth graders to a large sample of eighth and seventh graders who did not attend preschool. They were not doing nearly as well. So did preschool somehow inoculate children from academic failure? And what exactly happens in a high-quality preschool program that has a lasting impact on children?
PHILLIPS: You've put your finger on the big mystery.
SANCHEZ: In other words, says Phillips, what researchers have tried to figure out is this - what goes into the making of a strong, high-performing, enthusiastic student? Is it something you can measure?
PHILLIPS: Or is it more of these kinds of intangibles, like feeling more willing to speak up and raise their hand in class, really understanding the importance of getting to school every day and how to be a good student.
SANCHEZ: In many ways, Phillips is describing Jose.
JOSE: Do you know where Room 220 is?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two-twenty, 220.
SANCHEZ: Although, today, the first day of school, Jose is lost in a sea of teenagers at Booker T. Washington High. Finally, when he gets to his first period advisory class, Jose gets a chance to check his class schedule.
JOSE: Second period is English I. Third period is Algebra I.
SANCHEZ: When Principal Nanette Coleman walks in, I introduce her to Jose.
NANETTE COLEMAN: Hi, Jose, welcome. You guys take care of Jose for me. Make sure he's successful.
SANCHEZ: Coleman says she doesn't know how many of her ninth graders attended Tulsa's highly regarded preschool program and has not seen the research. But she's skeptical. Preschool, no matter how good, says Coleman, is unlikely to have much of an impact 10 years later.
COLEMAN: They're going to struggle when they get to me because there are so many outliers that can have a student not be successful. Let me be very clear. I have never made a direct linkage between a pre-K program and their high school success.
SANCHEZ: Coleman has every reason to be skeptical, says Russ Whitehurst, senior fellow with the Center for Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. He's looked closely at the Tulsa study and says the way researchers compared kids is flawed.
RUSS WHITEHURST: What Dr. Phillips and her colleagues have done is they've scrounged up a bunch of kids who, for whatever reason - and they don't know that reason - didn't attend pre-K at all. And we really don't know whether those kids were similar in all important respects to the kids who actually went to pre-K. And that's why the design has question marks about your ability to conclude that the pre-K program had the effects that are attributed to it by Dr. Phillips.
SANCHEZ: For decades, researchers have debated and argued about the long-term benefits of preschool, both real and perceived. So there's no consensus. Still, says Whitehurst, you can bet preschool advocates will latch onto Phillips' study just like they've latched onto the famous High/Scope Perry Preschool study that followed 123 low-income children back in the mid-1960s. Thirty-five years later, that study showed that preschoolers were more likely to have graduated from high school, held a job and earned a living wage. Recent studies, Whitehurst argues, have found no lasting benefits, including a national study of Head Start in a big pre-K study in Tennessee. Deborah Phillips insists her study is different.
PHILLIPS: I hope it'll just silence the naysayers.
SANCHEZ: Phillips says her findings, which will be published by the journal Development Psychology, will make it much harder for people to argue that the benefits of pre-K don't last. At Kendall-Whittier Elementary, Lisa Williams, Jose Arriaga's former preschool teacher, says the Tulsa study confirmed what she's known for years. Kids thrive long after they've left the program. And Jose is a good example.
LISA WILLIAMS: He was certainly a kid, especially as an English language learner, who was able to enjoy being on the high end of the reading scores or the math scores. When we would encounter third-grade or fourth-grade or fifth-grade teachers and say, oh, you have Jose - and the fifth-grade or sixth-grade teacher would say, oh, yeah, he's wonderful. And I'd say, oh, I had him in pre-K. I know he's wonderful.
SANCHEZ: Williams is sure Jose will do great in high school and beyond. And she says it all began here.
WILLIAMS: Here, I'll show you.
SANCHEZ: Look at that, wow.
Williams digs into a drawer and pulls out a newspaper article dated August, 2006. It includes a picture of a little boy. It's Jose, age 5. Later this month, that little boy will turn 15. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.