Early childhood education: lessons from Oklahoma

Canada, with the notable exception of Quebec, continues to lag when it comes to early childhood education. The research says that the most important brain development happens between birth and age six, so why do we wait until age six before we have kids in school full-time (most kindergarten programs are “half-day”, generally three hours or less)? Dollar for dollar we are better off spending money on young children than for post-secondary, but desite some first steps introduced here and there, federally and provincially, we have not yet, as a society, got it about why early learning is good stuff.

The framing of the issue is partly to blame. Calls for “child care” came out of the women’s movement and were more aimed at enhancing labour force participation to better equalize opportunities for men and women. This aspect is very important, but the term “child care” connotates baby-sitting, so we do ourselves a dis-service by continually referring to it that way. (I am part of the problem, having tagged this post “child care”.)

Now, education is something that everyone can get their heads around. The federal Liberals used the term “early learning and child care”; others have used “early childhood education”. The latter has been criticized because provincial governments have used it to fund lower-cost drop-in programs, largely available to stay-at-home mothers, rather than the full-meal deal. But at its most basic, we need to make a shift in how we talk about “child care” to the general public; perhaps the existing terms “early learning” or “pre-school” are sufficient.

There is a wide difference in the quality of programs out there: some literally are baby-sitting, where kids do colouring most of the day; others are immersive environments that make learning the same as play through a variety of tools and techniques. Parents often find it difficult to monitor quality (information asymmetry, anyone?). By developing a coherent publicly-funded system (run by non-profits, with parental oversight, would be my preferred model), we can ensure both universal access and high quality, in place of the existing patchwork, which is really a market-driven model reinforced with subsidies to certain facilities and low income parents.

Which brings me to Oklahoma, where they are starting to get it. Hat tip to Mark Thoma for catching this one from the New York Times, Bridging Gaps Early On in Oklahoma.

… Almost a decade ago, thanks to a low-key push by a small group of state legislators, business executives and educators, Oklahoma agreed to pay for one year of prekindergarten. The program is voluntary, but 70 percent of 4-year-olds here now attend public preschool, more than in any other state. In every classroom, the head teacher must have a bachelor’s degree — nationwide, most preschool teachers don’t — and there must be a teacher for every 10 students.This combination of quality and scale makes the Oklahoma program one of the most serious attempts to deal with economic inequality anywhere in the country. Long before children turn 5, there are already enormous gaps in their abilities. One study found that 3-year-olds with professional parents know about 1,100 words on average, while 3-year-olds whose parents are on welfare know only 525. Much of the gap is caused by environment rather than genes, according to a wide body of research.

By letting children start school at age 4 — and, if the current governor has his way, eventually at age 3 — Oklahoma is trying to give all of them at least a shot at success. Dexie Organ, a former drug user whose son David attends a Tulsa preschool she loves, put it better than I can: “I don’t care if they’re drug addicts’ children or doctors’ children — there is no child that should not have this opportunity.”

James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, even argues that spending on preschool ultimately pays for itself. Early childhood education is so important that it makes workers more productive and reduces crime. No other form of education spending, certainly not the college financial-aid package passed recently by the House of Representatives, brings nearly the same bang for the buck.

For years, advocates of early education have pointed to a few well-known success stories like the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich. The low-income children from those programs went on to do better in school than many of their peers, to be arrested less often and to earn more money. But Perry was small and intensive, not the sort of program likely to be replicated nationwide.

Oklahoma is not a test. It suffers from all the typical imperfections of a big bureaucracy (including urinals at some schools that were too high for 4-year-old boys).

The state pays about $4,000 per 4-year-old, which isn’t enough for a full-day program. So some school districts offer only a half-day, leaving working parents to cobble together day care for the other half; other districts use federal or private funds to make up the difference. A local oil billionaire named George B. Kaiser, No. 27 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, and Warren E. Buffett’s daughter, Susan, essentially paid for the construction of Educare.

But the early results in Oklahoma have still been very encouraging. In every socioeconomic group, 4-year-olds have benefited from attending public preschool, researchers at Georgetown University found. (Most go to an elementary school, not a separate school like Educare.) All else being equal, for example, a child who went through a year of prekindergarten did 52 percent better on a letter-recognition test than one who didn’t.

Not surprisingly, the gains were largest for low-income children and for Latinos, many of whom don’t hear English at home. At McClure Elementary School here, where 97 percent of families are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, one whole class of kindergarteners started writing full sentences last month. Before the preschool program existed, teachers would celebrate if every student knew the alphabet by the end of kindergarten.


  • Basically, what they are saying to parents, is that they are no longer worthy to take care of thier kids.

    Perhaps a better and cheaper option is to teach the parents what they need to be teaching thier kids at this age. This can be done with a large media campaign: articles, books, TV shows for kids and parents on CBC.

  • Children from all demographic groups benefit, but the greatest benefit is to kids from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds. A universal public solution works better in the same way that traditional schooling is better than if everyone was left to homeschool their kids.

    Don’t think of this as either/or. Good pre-school programs are complementary to activities done at home with parents. It’s not a competition.

    In terms of costs, there is a large payback to these investments over time, both to the child and to society via the treasury. An often cited study in the Canadian context is by Cleveland and Krashinsky of the University of Toronto, who find that every dollar invested in high quality early learning programs leads to a two dollar benefit in terms of the benefits to the child and the increased labour force participation of mothers.

  • You are talking about having kids in these programs for 5, 6 or 7 hours a day, which is time, in some cases, at least, that they would not be spending with a parent. So, it is a competition.

    While I don’t doubt early childhood education would save money in the long run, perhaps getting parents to do it themselves would save even more.

    With increasing technology, higher labour force participation, is something we should not be encouraging for reasons I have discussed before: http://progecon.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/another-tax-cut-gimmick-opening-thoughts-on-income-splitting/#comments

  • The idea that parents should be educating their kids, is just that an idea. And in the world of ideas it’s probably best. Mark, you use the important period of brain development from birth to six as a reason to start educating kids earlier. I think you’re confusing brain development with education. There’s a lot more of value to be learned under the loving wing of a parent during those years, than would ever be picked up in a 10:1 setting.

    But for a lot of kids, in the world of children(just try to hold on to an idea with kids around!), their parents aren’t the best source of education. Those kids would do better in early education programs (complete with nutritional programs).

    Maybe if our public school system accepted difference, this discussion wouldn’t be happening, not on this level anyway, but in grade one there are rigid expectations that aren’t being met by children from low income situations. To expect that the parents of those children could be got to do it themselves is to forget that those parents have been through our education system, for generations and that system has been failing them for generations.

  • I am a kindergarten teacher in OK and I can tell you first hand that these programs make a huge difference for children who come from poverty. Of course, the first choice would be for parents to stay home with their children, talk with them, and give them experiences that would prepare them to interact with other humans. But the sad reality is that the culture of poverty is not one that even understands that parents have responsibility. If they did, many of them would not be in their life situations. These children are babysat by the television or left to run around the apartment complex unsupervised. You can’t make parents be good parents, so the only way these kids have a chance to catch up to their middle class counterparts is for them to enter a structured educational environment with 2 meals provided each day, as they are in my school. The difference between children who begin kindergarten with Pre-K experience and those who do not is HUGE. Most middle class families provide the stimulation at home to prepare their children for school. They also benefit from Pre-K programs, but they don’t desperately need them like the children from poverty do.

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