From the Field

Q&A: Gormley on His Long-Running Tulsa Pre-K Research

William Gormley retired this spring after 32 years at Georgetown University as a professor, interim dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy, and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the United States. Gormley’s work has covered a wide array of topics relating to education, social policy, and government, but perhaps his biggest professional impact has been the 20+ years of research he led on the universal pre-K program in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Tulsa research will continue under new leadership, but FutureEd Policy Director Liz Cohen sat down with Gormley to talk about what he’s learned about early childhood education over two decades, what he hopes researchers will explore next, and what perspectives and advice he has to share after a long, distinguished career (which now includes work on a mystery novel set in his hometown of Pittsburgh).

Where and how did your Tulsa research start?

It was 2001 when Deborah Phillips and I established CROCUS, the Center for Research on Children in the United States. We had a lot of flexibility in deciding which children’s issues to focus on. At the time there were only two states that had authentic universal pre-K programs. One was Georgia, which was being studied by a very capable team at Georgia State, and the other was Oklahoma. As far as we could tell, no one was studying Oklahoma. I made the phone call to talk with state Deputy Superintendent of Education Ramona Paul. And she said, “We’d love to have you come and study our program.” And that was music to my ears.

Of the findings you’ve seen over the years, which do you think is the most impactful, and which surprised you the most?

The biggest finding, which we reported in Science in 2008, is that Tulsa’s universal pre-K program produces amazingly strong positive effects for a wide range of kids. The Tulsa program sharply improves students’ cognitive development, particularly pre-reading and pre-writing skills. It has positive effects for disadvantaged kids, which a lot of people probably would have expected. But it also has positive effects for middle class kids. Many other scholars did not anticipate that. That finding remains our single most important finding, because it established that somehow, the folks in Tulsa had come up with the right formula to dramatically transform the educational trajectories of kids not just in certain subgroups, but all kids who participate in the program.

How do you think about the replicability of the results? Is it possible to do what works in Tulsa in other places?

Some of the elements of Tulsa’s program are very easy to replicate. Take, for example, cost. This is not a particularly expensive program as pre-K programs go. At this point, the average annual cost is in the neighborhood of $12,000 per child for a full-day program.

The teachers in Tulsa’s pre-K program are very good. The classroom is not smoke and mirrors. It’s just good old-fashioned earnestness and perseverance and patience and keeping your eye on the ball and remembering that you’re dealing with young kids and that you want to convey a sense of joy and excitement in the classroom, and that you want to give them opportunities to learn through play. That can be replicated.

What’s harder to replicate is that in Tulsa you have several interrelated programs that help to promote not only short-term success, but also long-term success. We have focused primarily over the years on Tulsa’s universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds. But you have lots of other building blocks that help to propel and sustain this important effort.

One of those is a really strong Head Start program that supports 3- and 4-year-olds. It also, incidentally, provides some benefits to parents. There are opportunities for parents through Tulsa’s Head Start program, for example, to get a health certificate that will help them get better jobs and to have actual careers in the health-management field. In addition, Tulsa has an absolutely fabulous Educare program for infants and toddlers from low-income families. If you could see their facilities, your jaw would drop.

So you have a strong Head Start program, you have an Educare program that serves the needs of disadvantaged infants and toddlers, and you have some awareness, at least, of the importance of strong elementary, middle and high schools.

What have you found on longer-term effects of the pre-K program?

We started looking at third-grade outcomes around 2010. We had a very, very limited range of third-grade metrics, essentially state math and reading test scores. Just as we had used imperfect, incomplete data years earlier—this was sort of a proof-of-concept approach. And we learned several things from our third-grade research that guided our subsequent research all the way up to college.

First, there is some persistence of effects through third grade. Specifically, third-grade students who were in the pre-K program have stronger self-regulation skills and perform better in math. Second, there’s quite a bit of fade-out. That’s the reality, and you have to acknowledge it and figure out what to do about it.

We also discovered that we had a data problem that we were previously unaware of. The problem was that the Tulsa pre-K program has such a big effect on grade retention that we needed to radically revise our sample selection process to include not only students who were still on track but also students who were retained for one year. Unless we did that, we would not have accurately gauged the longer-term effects of the program because a disproportionate share of students who did not participate in Tulsa’s pre-K program wind up being retained. The retained kids constituted about 23 percent of our sample.

Research from Tennessee hasn’t found the kind of positive impacts from pre-K that you have. How do you think about those findings?

Anyone who studies pre-K has to be concerned about the Tennessee findings. I think the researchers there are very careful and very thoughtful, and so I take their findings at face value, but I reach very different conclusions when it comes to drawing inferences from their research. One of the things that has struck me is that even the folks in Tennessee find that students who were exposed to better teachers in pre-K are better prepared for kindergarten and do well later on. So there could be a quality problem [if there aren’t enough high-quality teachers].

I’ve often thought that the other factor in Tennessee that helps to explain their disappointing longer-term findings for the pre-K program is that the Tennessee program has a relatively low participation rate compared to Tulsa and other universal pre-K program jurisdictions. Improvements that need to be made in K-3 and K-5 [to produce larger learning gains] are more likely to be made in a universal pre-K context than in a targeted pre-K context because so many more of your students are ready to learn as of kindergarten. I’ve often thought that’s one reason for the rather striking differences in outcomes between Tennessee and Tulsa.

What is stopping other cities or districts from doing what Tulsa’s done?

One of the things that the folks in Tulsa do very well in their early childhood education programs is spend more time on task than their counterparts in 11 other states that we’ve compared them to. There’s a lot of downtime in preschools, just as there’s a lot of downtime in daycare centers. I think in Tulsa they’ve done a better job of making sure that the time inside their classroom is well spent on intentional activities, whether academic or play-based. That’s not rocket science. If some other jurisdictions took a close, careful look at their time, allocation, habits and practices and norms they could probably sharply upgrade the quality of their programs without any significant expenditure of funds.

What are the next research questions that you hope researchers will tackle?

One question is, how can mentoring and coaching enhance the quality of preschool teaching? There’s a lot of thought that’s gone into that in Boston, and a fair amount of money, so I’m very curious to see exactly how that will play out.

I also think that there is growing interest in a successful preschool curriculum. There’s a curriculum known as Building Blocks that, I think, has some promise, especially in early mathematics. We’re getting some good early research on that program and its effects, and we need more of that.

However, I think that, in the world of pre-K research, we have devoted far too little attention in to what goes on in K-12. It doesn’t make sense for any state or local government to invest substantial resources in a strong pre-K program, and then to hope that somehow, magically, those effects will be sustained over time if you make no changes in K-12 education. If you’re going to sustain pre-k effects in Massachusetts, Tennessee, in Oklahoma, California, or really anywhere, then you need to make sure that the entire educational experience is well integrated and well-coordinated and well designed.

I think that means several things. First, it means that early elementary education must be well aligned with what is happening in preschool. If kindergarten teachers and first grade teachers continue to teach the same old stuff in the same old way, they’re going to get the same old outcomes.

Second, I would say that the best way to ensure that a strong universal pre-K program’s initial effects are sustained over time is to be absolutely sure that there are good educational opportunities for students in middle school and in high school. In Tulsa, those educational opportunities can be found, especially in magnet schools, which helped students sustain the benefits of their pre-K education over time. It doesn’t have to be magnet schools, but you need to make sure that students who have been energized and excited by a strong preschool education have some rigorous options that lie ahead of them.

And then, finally, I would say that one of the things that Tulsa has going for it that’s amazing and really important is what’s called the Tulsa Achieves program, which allows any Tulsa resident who completes high school and gets a diploma to enroll in the Tulsa Community College and get a two-year college education for free. That is an amazing opportunity that many, many Tulsa students have taken advantage of. And we’ve shown in our most recent paper on college enrollment effects that there’s a striking difference between pre-K alums and non-alums in Tulsa, with the pre-K alums being much more likely to enroll in college.

What’s the advice you would give to up-and-coming researchers and people in the policy field of early childhood education?

It’s not easy to stay the course. We had a strong partnership with the Tulsa Public Schools and with many other partners. Our partnership with the Tulsa Public Schools and with the CAP Head Start program in Tulsa lasted for 22 years. That’s a long time.

I’d be less than honest if I were to claim that we had no near-death experiences. We definitely did. There were turning points when we faced lots of obstacles, and we considered packing up our bags and doing something else. But we stuck with it, and our partners stuck with us. It’s a two-way street. If you’re going to have a long-term partnership with education providers in a given community, you have to work really hard at it. You have to be patient, you have to be honest, you have to be responsive, and you have to be optimistic.

That means when you ask for data once, you know that’s not going to be enough. When you ask for data a dozen times, maybe that’s not going to be enough. Sometimes you have to ask for data two dozen times before you hit the jackpot, and you have to develop personal relationships with the people who are taking time out of their busy schedules to help you answer what you think is a really pressing question that may ultimately provide some public benefits down the road.

William T. Gormley Publications

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