The Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the United States (CROCUS) received three new grants to support their ongoing research into the universal prekindergarten program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which provides high-quality pre-K to nearly three-fourths of all four-year-old children.

The grants, from the Foundation for Child Development, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and a third foundation, will fund CROCUS’ longitudinal studies to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of the Tulsa Public Schools pre-K program.

“We are extremely grateful to our partners for their support of our research,” said William T. Gormley co-Director of CROCUS and university professor within Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “We are eager to see whether adolescents who participated in pre-K are better off as a result.”

CROCUS is co-directed by Deborah A. Phillips, a professor within Georgetown’s department of Psychology.

Dr. Sara Anderson, a post-doctoral fellow with CROCUS, will also contribute.

A Unique Program

Georgetown researchers first began their evaluation of the Tulsa Pre-K program in 2001.  Gormley and Phillips were interested in Oklahoma because it was one of a handful of states offering free pre-K to all four-year-olds, irrespective of income. Tulsa presented a unique research opportunity, because it is a large school district serving children from a diverse set of racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

And, unlike some other preschool programs, Oklahoma mandates high-quality educational inputs- every teacher must have a B.A. degree, must be certified in early childhood education, and must be paid a public school wage.

A Phenomenal Success

These factors and more led Georgetown researchers to believe that the program would be successful, and that’s just what they found. Past studies by CROCUS looked at the more immediate effects of universal pre-K education.

In three separate studies, they found substantial improvements in school readiness among students who attended preschool. Looking at students as a whole, kindergarten students who attended the Tulsa pre-K program were 9 months ahead of their peers in reading, 7 months ahead in writing, and 5 months ahead in math.  Gains were especially striking for English language learners.

The Next Phase

The latest round of funding will continue the longitudinal study of Tulsa area students who did and did not attend the Tulsa Public Schools pre-K program.  This time, several Tulsa-area school districts have agreed to provide data, reducing what researchers call the “sample attrition” problem.  The Georgetown team will also be including students retained in grade in their analysis.

“A number of peer-reviewed studies have reported short-term educational gains for children attending the current generation of state preschool programs,” Phillips said.  “The next question is, ‘do those gains fade out or persist?’ And, whatever the answer, “why?’”

This research will focus on children who enrolled in pre-K in the fall of 2005 in order to see how those children are performing relative to their peers as they reach eighth grade in a number of educational, social and behavioral areas.

An unusual feature of the latest study is that CROCUS was able to administer a survey to Tulsa-area middle school children to assess their grit, their social capital, their attitudes toward school, their theories of learning, and their attitudes towards risky behavior.  According to Sara Anderson, the survey response rate was 85 percent. 

“Our survey response rate is encouraging,” said Dr. Anderson. “It indicates a strong commitment from staff and administrators to this research.”

Some scholars contend that socio-emotional effects are among the more important consequences of a high-quality early childhood education.

Earning National Attention

The Tulsa pre-K program has generated considerable national attention and has been the focus of stories in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the CBS Evening News, NPR, and elsewhere.

One reason for this mass media coverage, according to Gormley, is that the Tulsa pre-K program is a “very ambitious entitlement program in a very red state.”  Or, as he puts it, “When a dog bites a man, it’s not news.  But when a man bites a dog, everyone wants to know more!”

Phillips, who participated in a recent White House conference on early childhood education policy, reports that there is considerable interest in the Tulsa pre-K program at the White House and at the U.S. Department of Education.

“This Administration clearly values the evidence of success generated by our research on the Tulsa pre-K program,” she said. “Oklahoma also makes a great poster child for pre-K: If it can happen in Oklahoma, surely it can happen anywhere.”

Children and Public Policy

Since 2001, CROCUS faculty and students have worked on a variety of research projects relating to children and public policy. Many of them have focused on early childhood education, including research on pre-K programs, child care programs, and Head Start.

CROCUS is a joint venture between the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Georgetown University Department of Psychology.