Tahlequah Daily Press

April 25, 2014

Oklahoma’s early childhood education a model for others


TAHLEQUAH — With all the “bad news” recently about what’s wrong with Oklahoma, it’s refreshing to see a profile piece on what’s right with our state. And where we really shine, according to a report this week on NPR, is in early childhood education.

Americans may disagree with President Obama on a great many things, but one element that can bring everyone to the table is the importance of high-quality early education. Though naysayers have long decried programs such as Head Start as unproven in effectiveness and a frivolous byproduct of the “Great Society,” much of the data used is misleading or downright fabricated.

In fact, repeated studies show that when preschool programs are handled correctly, by educated and well-trained teachers, they literally do push students ahead of their peers. The key is “educated and well-trained teachers.” When we have mediocre personnel in charge of critical programs, we’re going to get mediocre results. And with the price tag on such programs, especially Obama’s plan – $75 billion over 10 years, funded through an increased tax on cigarettes – no one should settle for mediocrity.

NPR’s education team admitted to being surprised to find that the public school system in Tulsa is a leader in early childhood education. One reason is the requirement that pre-K teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and higher education is preferred. Master’s degrees are common, and teachers are expected to take a variety of courses that prepare them to deal with young children.

Deborah Phillips, a developmental psychologist and professor at Georgetown University, has made a career of studying early childhood education and its affects on later progress and success. She told NPR a teacher must be well-rounded and understand how to instruct kids in pre-math, pre-literacy and other essentials, but the educator must also be able to “get down on the child’s level.”

Phillips spent seven months studying the Tulsa program, and found four “pillars of quality”:

• An elaborate curriculum that revolves around play, rather than merely including it.

• Generous funding for the program – about $7,500 per child per year.

• A balanced teacher-to-student ratio, one teacher for every 10 youngsters.

• All teachers are highly qualified.

Phillips said arguments being advanced to cut preschool funding, or keep it stagnant, don’t hold any water – at least, not when it comes to programs like Tulsa’s.  Kids who go through pre-K there are doing better in math – especially boys and children from low-income homes. And she says that in many cases, an exceptional pre-K teacher undertakes many of the tasks a parent is supposed to do.

Many parents resent a teacher’s overarching role, and some even compare it to “communism” – which only shows these parents don’t understand what  “communism” really is. And while it’s true that parents really should be their children’s first and best teachers, sadly, this is not the case for many. And when parents fail, it’s in society’s best interest to fill at least some of the gaps, to the extent that doing so is possible without taxing everyone into oblivion.

Anyone who wants to argue against this ideal should harken back to the statistics cited earlier this week indicating crime is higher when education levels are lower.

It’s beginning to look like Oklahoma is serving as a model for other states when it comes to early childhood education. The Cherokee Nation, too, has its own outstanding program. These successes need to be parlayed into other forms of public education, and the same traits will be needed: the best and brightest teachers, with pay to match their talents. Anything less is a waste of time and money.