Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oklahoma Leads the Way in Preschool Education

The education of a child begins at birth. How the child matures depends on the nurturing and nourishment provided by whoever cares for it. Obviously, children will receive a vast range of experiences depending on their particular environment, and by the time they are ready to enter kindergarten and begin formal schooling some will be much more advanced than others. There is evidence that these initial advantages can create a bias in favor of the better prepared that persists throughout their schooling, and produces inequality in educational outcomes. To counter this effect many nations provide universal preschool for all four-year-olds, and some for three-year-olds as well. This approach more nearly provides similar starting points for the children as they enter formal schooling.

How does the United States perform in providing preschool care? An OECD report provides a summary and compares us with other wealthy OECD nations. In terms of the fraction of four-year-old children participating in a preschool program, we fall at number 28 out of 38 countries. Not only are we behind comparable countries, the way we approach the issue seems intended to enhance inequality rather than damp it out. Instead of the majority of children being enrolled in a common program, nearly half of our children are enrolled in private programs. Also, the quality of instruction provided, both public and private, is very uneven since there are no universal standards. As in so many other areas, those who can afford the best get the best.

Providing quality instruction to all preschool children would be a desirable goal. It was interesting to come across a report that indicated that the state of Oklahoma actually had the best and most universal program for four-year-olds. Sharon Lerner provided an article titled Pre-K on the Range in The American Prospect. She begins with this lede:

"Rural, conservative, impoverished Oklahoma has built the nation’s brightest model for early education."

Oklahoma is definitely conservative and rural, but the term impoverished deserves some elaboration. While many people qualify as living in poverty, there is a lot of wealth in the state. The issue is being able to share wealth in a productive manner.

Lerner attributes the guiding philosophy for Oklahoma’s program to Ramona Paul who worked in the state Department of Education, and the implementation to a Democratic legislator named Joe Eddins.

"It wasn’t until 1998 that a legislator named Joe Eddins quietly pushed through a law that provided the funding to expand Paul’s vision into a mostly full-day program that would be offered throughout the state."

Eddins was successful because the most important constituency of all was convinced that such a program was in their best interests.

"Eddins allies included not just child-development experts and educational policy makers but also a handful of business leaders who had come to see early education as the state’s economic salvation. Getting young Oklahomans into school earlier was not only in the kid’s interest, they argued; it was important for businesses, which were facing a dwindling pool of potential workers and customers."

Lerner ascribes some cleverness and subtlety to Eddins’s means of getting this most progressive of bills passed in this most conservative of legislatures. What he accomplished was both simple in concept and powerful in execution, and can serve as an example of how other states could address the initiation of a universal program.

"By building its cost into the larger public-school funding formula, rather than funding early education separately in the state budget, it also protected pre-K from fiscal conservatives who might object to it as part of a ‘nanny state’."

"This seemingly small detail may be the key difference separating Oklahoma from other states, such as Arizona and Illinois, where pre-K funding was slashed during the recent recession. Indeed, in Oklahoma, pre-K is essentially just another grade—as unlikely to be singled out as [any other]."

Another advantage of putting pre-K on the same footing as other grades is that comparably qualified teachers can be recruited for pre-K and be paid on the same scale as teachers in the higher grades. And funding for pre-K students is not subject to lower standards. Lerner tells us that Oklahoma spends about $7400 on each of its preschoolers, a level that allows it to attract quality teachers, keep class sizes low, and provide a healthy learning environment.

Part of Eddins’s strategy in getting his legislation passed was to make participation voluntary. Oklahoma’s experience with participation indicates the degree to which there is demand for quality and affordable preschools.

"...’people started camping out that first night before we began enrolling,’ says Cathy Burden, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. That was in 1998, when Union enrolled less than half of its four-year-olds and pre-K was only half-day. Today, about 75 percent of the district’s four-year-olds are enrolled, all are in school for full days, and demand continues to grow. ‘If anyone tried to get rid of pre-K now,’ Burden says, ‘they’d get run out of town’."

The thought of starting from scratch in a state and organizing a universal preschool program at this point in time seems foolhardy. But what about the approach taken by Oklahoma: just add another grade? The educational, administrative, and legislative simplifications that ensue are rather startling.

Could this be the best way to approach the problem? It seems worth the try.

1 comment:

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged