New research finds Tulsa Head Start program produces lasting gains (Guest Blog: Deborah Phillips and William Gormley)

Deborah Phillips is Professor of Psychology and William Gormley is Professor of Government and Public Policy at Georgetown University. Their Tulsa-based research on early childhood education has appeared in the top scientific journals in their fields, in national media outlets, and was mentioned in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.

Photo by Mats Eriksson / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Mats Eriksson / CC BY 2.0

In an era of high expectations of preschool education, new research finds that the Head Start program operated by Tulsa’s Community Action Program (CAP) has risen to the challenge.

Since the early 2000s, we have been following children who participate in Tulsa CAP Head Start and Tulsa Public School pre-K programs. We found that positive initial effects of the program on participants’ readiness for kindergarten persist into middle school in the form of higher math achievement test scores, less grade retention, and less chronic absenteeism as compared to children of the same age and backgrounds who did not participate in CAP Head start or in the Tulsa Public Schools pre-K program in 2005-06 when the study began. These results were strongest for girls, white and Hispanic children, and English Language Learners.

In an age when STEM skills are in great demand, the edge that CAP Head Start gives to students in math is very important for their future success in school and at work. The findings for grade retention also bode well for reduced crime and higher earnings in adulthood. These are highly consequential accomplishments. They demonstrate that the Head Start model of comprehensive services for children and families can provide a strong boost into school and sustained benefits under conditions of high quality. In Tulsa, this means teachers with BA degrees and early childhood certification who are paid on the public school wage scale through the program’s partnership with the Tulsa Public Schools. It also means teachers who were observed by trained researchers to provide higher instructional supports and more time on literacy and math activities than the typical Head Start program.

While exceptional at the time, Tulsa CAP Head Start provides a promising window into what current national efforts to increase Head Start teacher qualifications and focus intensively on the quality of children’s experiences in the program may produce in the future. The next question is how to ensure that K-12 education supports rather than squanders the gains that Head Start generates. The program’s impacts in middle school were notably weaker than they were in kindergarten. While this is to be expected – even antibiotics wear off over time – imagine what an equally strong elementary education that builds on what each child knows at kindergarten entry could accomplish.

With the nation’s attention now turned to early childhood education, it is essential to make the investments necessary to ensure that the initial impacts of Head Start are sufficiently robust to launch children along a promising path into elementary school and to ensure that children’s experiences at every subsequent grade level build on their growing knowledge, skills, and love of learning. Tulsa has deservedly earned a prominent position on the national landscape of early education; now it is time for the next stage of education to do the same.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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