Georgetown University’s latest research on Tulsa’s pre-kindergarten program found higher scores on state math tests and a 26 percent reduction in students being held back by seventh grade.

In an article released Tuesday in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the researchers offer the first bits of evidence that longer-term effects of the Tulsa pre-K program, while more modest than the significant advantages shown in kindergarten readiness, do not disappear by the time children hit middle school.

Key findings:

Students who had attended Tulsa pre-K outperformed their non-pre-K counterparts by a “statistically significant” margin.

Pre-K alumni were more likely to be enrolled in honors courses — 74 percent compared to 67 percent of students who did not attend pre-K.

Only 15 percent of pre-K attendees had been retained, or held back, in a grade, compared to 23 percent of their peers who did not attend pre-K.

“This amounts to a 26 percent reduction in grade retention, with control group children as the baseline. Such a reduction can be profoundly important because studies show a strong relationship between grade retention and high school dropout rates and a strong relationship between dropping out of high school and a variety of negative outcomes, including higher crime and lower earnings,” the new study states.

They will continue to track the students’ outcomes through the end of 12th grade.

Oklahoma has been held up as a national model for providing universal access for 4-year-olds to a high-quality, public-school based pre-K program.

Unlike other states with such a large-scale program, Oklahoma pre-K teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree, be certified to teach early childhood education, and earn a full, public school teaching wage.

But recently, public policy debate over state-funded pre-K has shifted from school-readiness levels when students enter kindergarten to longer-term effects.

“Taxpayers and public officials would like some assurance that investments in pre-K have enduring impacts that can justify these expenditures,” the new study states.

Through data sharing agreements with TPS, the three most popular suburban districts where families relocate — Broken Arrow, Jenks and Union — as well as the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the researchers were still able to keep tabs on 2,500 to 3,000 of the original sample of students.

Researchers found no significant effects by the seventh-grade level on a host of indicators, including reading test scores, letter grades, designation as a gifted student or special education student or rates of absenteeism or suspensions.

William Gormley, professor of public policy and government and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. at Georgetown University, spoke with the Tulsa World on a recent visit here.

He said the most conclusive findings of the research team’s most recent work pale in comparison to the findings of their initial comparison of kindergarten readiness levels of Tulsa pre-K students and those who enrolled without having attended pre-K. But he insists the new findings are “potentially important down the road.”

“Take math: In this article we know there is a significant statistical difference in math scores which advantages the kids who attended the Tulsa pre-K program. I think the single best explanation for persistent math effects, but not reading effects is that schools have much greater control over students’ mathematics learning — your math skills depend almost entirely on your teachers,” Gormley said.

He also pointed to another math finding he called “tantalizing” — TPS pre-K alumni were far more likely to have taken Algebra I early, which means they would take at least one advanced math course in high school — a proven advantage after high school.

Still, the Georgetown researchers say they have much to ponder from their latest study and intend to follow the sample students through the end of 12th grade.

“We want to know which kids enroll in AP (Advanced Placement) courses. We want to see what test scores they get in the AP courses they enroll in. We want to see what their PSAT and SAT or Pre-ACT and ACT test scores are,” Gormley said. “There are still some milestones yet to come in high school that we want to track.”

Gormley also noted that he has been closely following education funding levels and the worsening teacher shortage across Oklahoma because of the implications on the future of the pre-K program and education outcomes, in general, are dire.

“I’m worried by the hemorrhaging of Oklahoma’s best and brightest teachers to neighboring states because of underfunding of K-12 education, and I fear that down the road, that’s going to have some consequences for elementary school, middle school and high school outcomes,” Gormley said. “Research has shown a high-quality pre-K program can and does produce long-term benefits for kids, but it does not tell you that program alone can do the heavy lifting that will narrow the gap between Oklahoma high school graduates and graduates in other states.”

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Andrea Eger 

918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @AndreaEger

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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