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A Launch Pad for Tykes

Oklahoma shows the nation how to do preschool right.

By Alain Jehlen

[Updated April, 2010]

Mr. Worm is a critter on the cutting edge of education.

In the space of five minutes, Mr. Worm, who's bright green, wears a red cap, and lives in an apple, taught 17 four-year-olds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the importance of honesty and friendship, and then helped them learn how to retell a story in their own words.

That's a tall order for a worm, but he had help from teacher Talitha Bray because, of course, Mr. Worm is a puppet. And while he has no training for his job, Bray has plenty: a Master's degree in Early Childhood education, and 16 years' experience teaching at the Bunche Early Childhood Development Center.

She is the perfect example of why Oklahoma's preschool program is the pace-setter in American preschool education.

As of the most recent national figures, which cover the 2007-2008 school year, Oklahoma had more four-year-olds in public preschools than any other state—71 percent in the main, state-funded system, and 88 percent when you include other programs.

Just as important, Oklahoma requires that every preschool teacher have at least a Bachelor's degree and early childhood certification.

Nationwide, 24 percent of four-year-olds were in state-funded preschools as of 2008, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. That’s up from only 14 percent in 2002. As Oklahoma’s leadership role suggests, the states with the biggest and best preschool programs are not necessarily the most affluent. Besides Oklahoma, only Georgia and Florida have more than 50 percent of their four-year-olds enrolled. Twelve states from Rhode Island to Hawaii and from Mississippi to Alaska have no state-funded program at all.

(Here’s the full—and fascinating—NIEER report.)

Many Western European countries offer high-quality preschool for all children. America is starting to catch up, but some states are trying to do it on the cheap by employing teachers without full preparation. States as different as New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma, however, have recognized that hiring highly skilled teachers pays off.

That's why, in Tulsa, Talitha Bray's children were in for an educational feast at story time. First, she read them a book about raccoons eating ripe corn. She paused to discuss hard words (kernel, husk) and to ask questions to get them thinking. ("Why did they hurry back to the forest when the sun came up?")

Suddenly, she realized she had forgotten to invite Mr. Worm, who loves stories. She thought about not telling him because he might get mad, but she decided it was important to tell the truth. Mr. Worm was upset, but told her he would still be her friend.

Then Bray asked the children to fill him in:

"The raccoons ate all the corn!"

"The owl was looking at them!"

"I saw a spider!"

This all happened about 9:30 a.m. By then, the children had already sung several start-of-the-day songs, discussed the weather, watered the plants, talked about why they needed to water the plants, worked on their books about the color orange, found the word "orange" and the word "is" in a whole slew of sentences, debated which day of the week it was, sung a song about the days of the week, gone to the bathroom, done Simon Says-type games while walking to the cafeteria, eaten oranges and oatmeal with milk for breakfast, visited the bathroom again to wash their hands, and had a few minor squabbles, which Bray coached them to resolve:

"Xavier is messing with me!"

"Use your words."

"Xavier, stop messing with me!"

That same day, 110 miles to the east at the Stilwell Preschool in Stilwell, Oklahoma, Eileen Tidwell introduced her children, mostly Cherokee Indians like herself, to the science of sorting, first with geometric shapes and then plastic fruit. She told them their parents sort dishes in their kitchens, and people who work in grocery stores sort real fruit. "Children need to know why we're learning this. It's not just something we do in school," she explained.

Tidwell, who has since retired, taught a wide range of students. Some whipped through the activity, others were uncertain. One little girl with brown bangs and missing front teeth sorted the shapes well but couldn’t explain what she is doing—or maybe she was just shy.

At the dollhouse nearby, two girls were anything but tongue-tied as they acted out scenes of daily living. They loaded six dolls into a wooden truck. "They're going to jail. They were bad. They shoot someone!"

Stilwell, the "Strawberry Capital of the World," is a low-income town of 3,300. Some of Tidwell's students were living in foster homes; one had already been in several. Poverty, alcohol, and drugs take a heavy toll here.

Extensive research has shown that high-quality preschool is especially helpful for children like these. A Georgetown University study found that children of all races and all income levels benefited from Oklahoma preschools, but low-income children learned the most.

The academic gains in Oklahoma were in the range achieved by model preschools in Chicago and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers have followed the Chicago and Ypsilanti children for decades. They found that these lucky children needed less special education help, were more likely to graduate from high school, earned more money, and got into less trouble with the law than comparable children. One study calculated the long-term benefits at 16 times the cost. The return on this "investment" was twice as high as the stock market average.

But low-quality, low-cost preschool programs have failed to show such stellar results. Critics have cautioned that the educational experience created in the hothouse environment of small, experimental programs like those in Chicago and Ypsilanti can't be replicated in big programs serving all children. Oklahoma proves them wrong.

Oklahoma built its preschool system over many years. Gov. Brad Henry's wife, Kim Henry, a former teacher and member of the Oklahoma Education Association, has been a forceful advocate.

Oklahoma preschool teachers are paid on the K–12 teachers scale, which is why the system attracts and keeps well-qualified teachers for its youngest students. In other states, they'd probably be paid half as much.

What difference does it make that Oklahoma teachers like Bray and Tidwell are so well-prepared? Bray says her education taught her that "you can engage their minds. I ask open-ended questions and give them time to respond. If I hadn't taken the courses, I would have been more likely to just say, 'This is what you do.'"

Tidwell also has a Master's degree in early childhood education. She wrote her thesis on "natural literacy"—teaching children about reading in the context of daily life. She stocked magazines and books in her classroom's dramatic play area. After she read the children a book, they often pretended to read it to their dolls.

Both teachers, although their styles are different, know how to make effective use of probing, sometimes surprising questions. So when Tidwell introduced her charges to the tale of the gingerbread man, she stopped to ask about the secret thoughts of the fox who offered to carry him across the water. Later she asked, "Was the fox happy or sad at the end?"


"Happy! Because he ate the gingerbread man!"

Said Tidwell, "They don't always get the right answer, but they know how to think."

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NEA Policy On Preschool Education

NEA and the National Association for the Education of Young Children are working to improve the quality of preschool programs and increase access to these programs. Read NEA's Preschool Policy Brief.

And there's more on NEA efforts for bigger and better preschool programs on the Legislative Action Center.

A New Campaign For Better Education In Oklahoma

Although Oklahoma is the nation’s leader in pre-school, it’s behind in support for k-12 education. Oklahoma provides less funding than any of its neighboring states. Oklahoma parents and educators are promoting a referendum in the fall election that would eventually bring the state’s per-pupil funding up to the regional average. Read all about it at

More Resources

  • The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University has extensive news and information including a downloadable copy of its latest “The State of Preschool” yearbook, which was the 2006 edition when NEA Today went to press.
  • The pioneering Perry Preschool study, which found that a high-quality preschool program continued to make a big difference in the lives of those who were in it even at age 40.
  • Information about another influential preschool program, Abecedarian, whose participants were followed for many years.
  • The Harvard Education Letter ran a thorough article on preschool education in July, 2005.
  • The Georgetown University study of the effects of Oklahoma’s preschool program.