Assessing the Evaluations of Early Childhood Education Programs

Chapter 24 - Oklahoma's Universal Pre-Kindergarten
Introduction to the Original Evaluation (Excerpt)

In 1998, Oklahoma established a universal pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) program for all four- year-old children. By 2005-2006, 93 percent of Oklahoma's 543 public school districts were participating in the program and serving about 33,000 children. Oklahoma's program is one of the most "universal" in the country, with about 70 percent of all eligible four-year-olds served, and is noted for its commitment to quality.

William T. Gormley and his colleagues at Georgetown University ("the Georgetown team") conducted two evaluations of the Tulsa Public School District's pre-K program, using a regression-discontinuity design to compare the test scores of children who had attended pre-K with the test scores of children who were about to enter pre-K. The first evaluation took place in 2001, and the second took place in 2003. We focus on the later evaluation as it used the sub-tests of the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test which were a significant upgrade over the testing instruments used in the 2001 evaluation and because the later evaluation had a large enough sample to include findings for all racial and ethnic groups. Among four-year-olds who attended the program, the Georgetown team reports that the Tulsa pre-K program produced statistically significant positive effects on children's pre-writing, pre-reading, spelling, math, and problem solving test scores, as measured by the Woodcock Johnson sub-tests; the evaluation did not include any measures of health or behavior.

The Georgetown team conducted a third evaluation, using propensity-score matching and a fixed-effects econometric model to compare the socio-emotional development of children in kindergarten in 2006 who had attended Tulsa pre-K with their classmates who had not. Children who had attended pre-K were less timid, less apathetic, and "less prone to attention-seeking behavior" than their classmates who had not attended Tulsa pre-K.

However, none of the evaluations reported long-term impacts of the program and it is unclear if the initial positive effects will persist or fade over time. Moreover, it is unclear if the reported findings can be generalized to either the state or national levels. Finally, for the evaluations that made use of regression-discontinuity design, the reported effect sizes are for children with birthdays within twelve months of the cut-off which are somewhat higher than the effect sizes for children with birthdays within three or six months of the cut-off, which calls into question the comparability of the two groups.

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