North Carolina has a lot to be proud of when it comes to early childhood investments. In many ways, the Tar Heel State was a pioneer in the field. Our signature programs, Smart Start and More at Four, were award-winning models for the nation.
But North Carolina wasn’t the only state investing in early childhood. And after years of funding cuts and stagnant growth, North Carolina’s programs are falling behind other states'.
For example, Oklahoma has been home to one of the country’s most robust and successful early childhood programs since 1998. In fact, it is regarded as the best model for a national universal pre-K program.[i] Recent studies of Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program concluded that pre-K and Head Start are both more powerful predictors of achievement scores than any other socioeconomic variable, and can lead to substantial gains in short-term test scores.
Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program has garnered national attention for its robust model. The program uses state funding to provide free, voluntary, full-day and half-day programs within public schools. Oklahoma has enrolled an astounding 74 percent of its four-year olds in the program, a higher percentage than any other state’s pre-K system.[ii] Classrooms maintain 20 or fewer students and a 10:1 student-teacher ratio, and lead teachers must be certified in early childhood education.[iii]
A team of Georgetown University researchers led by William T. Gormley Jr. analyzed achievement test results for two groups of children who had attended Tulsa’s pre-K and Head Start programs compared to those who had not yet started the same programs. Researchers then converted those test results in letter-word identification, spelling, and applied programs into monthly equivalents of scholastic achievement.
The study revealed that these rising kindergarteners had made very promising short-term gains. Gormley Jr. et al. found that Pre-K was more effective at predicting gains in prereading and prewriting skills; participants saw a respective nine-month and seven-month gain in those skills. Head Start was more effective at predicting gains in premath skills, and participants saw a four-month gain.[iv] Black and Hispanic low-income children in the Pre-K full-day program experienced larger test impacts than similar children in the full-day Head Start program.[v]
Since 2001, North Carolina has been operating its means-tested pre-kindergarten program More at Four (now NC Pre-K), which has also produced significant short-term achievement gains. But Oklahoma’s success makes a compelling case for universal pre-K by showing its effects on students regardless of socioeconomic background.[vi] North Carolina lawmakers have a good reason to follow suit.
[i] Khimm, Suzy. 2013. Is Oklahoma the right model for universal pre-K? Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/14/is-oklahoma-the-right-model-for-universal-pre-k/
[iii] Hill, Carolyn J., William T. Gormley, Jr., Shirley Adelstein, and Catherine Willemin. 2012. The Effects of Oklahoma’s Pre-Kindergarten Program on 3rd Grade Test Scores. Center for Research on Children in the U.S., Georgetown University. Retrieved from: http://fcd-us.org/sites/default/files/Long-term%20Policy%20Brief_05-22-2012%20(2).pdf
[iv] Gromley Jr., William T., Deborah Phillips, and Ted Gayer. (2008.) Preschool Programs Can Boost School Readiness. Science. Retrieved from: http://nieer.org/resources/research/Gormley062708.pdf
[v] See iv.
[vi] Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen S. 2011. Evaluation of the NC More at Four Program. Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, UNC Chapel Hill. Retrieved from: http://fpg.unc.edu/projects/evaluation-nc-more-four-program