In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama called for universal early childhood education, citing a range of studies that show "the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road." And yet, the president continued, "today, fewer than three in ten four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids, who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives."
Professor James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, likely authored the essays President Obama cited in his speech. Heckman has studied the affects of early childhood education for decades, and finds that preschool and similar early intervention programs make a remarkable difference in children's lives.
Two landmark studies demonstrate Heckman's conclusions. The Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina compared low-income children who attended preschool with their peers who did not attend preschool. Researchers studied the groups for decades, and found that the children who enrolled in preschool, as Heckman explains, "scored higher on achievement tests, attained higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than controls."
These results prompted Oklahoma educators to advocate for free preschool throughout the state. Though the legislative process was less than straightforward, the state implemented free preschool for all children and quickly noticed students' improvement. Steve Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa, is a longtime advocate for universal preschool in Oklahoma, and his organization now partners with the state to provide preschool and Head Start programs.