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What Exactly Is 'High-Quality' Preschool?

A day in the life of Nikki Jones' preschool class at Porter Elementary in Tulsa.

John W. Poole / NPR YouTube

For years, President Obama has been a vocal booster of early childhood education. In his past two State of the Union addresses, he has called on Congress to help fund preschool for every child in the country.

For Early Childhood Education, Tulsa, Okla. Stands Out

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"Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education," Obama told Congress in January.

The president even put a price tag on his plan: $75 billion over 10 years, he said, would help every state provide preschool to every 4-year-old — to be paid for by raising cigarette taxes by 94 cents a pack.

But just what is quality preschool? It's difficult to debate the merits of early childhood education, and to argue that every child — indeed, the nation as a whole — will benefit from better access to preschool, without first defining what exactly constitutes a "high quality" model.

NPR's new

education team set out to unpack those two words and to understand what separates the nation's best preschool programs from the rest. That journey led us to a surprising place: Tulsa, Okla. where the public school system is now a leader in early childhood education.


One Approach To Head Start: To Help Kids, Help Their Parents

Interrupting 'A Spiral Of Failure'

The federal government currently spends almost $8 billion a year on preschool programs. States spend billions more, mostly geared toward low-income 4-year-olds. And while state-run programs today reach twice as many kids as they did back in 2002, that's still only 30 percent of all eligible children.

Even so, Obama's $75 billion plan was a nonstarter with Congress. One big argument critics make against spending more on preschool is that the benefits don't last.

Some researchers counter that many kids don't see lasting benefits because early childhood education programs are often underfunded. That can mean poorly trained teachers and a weak curricular patchwork.


Nikki Jones' preschool class at Porter Early Childhood Development Center in Tulsa. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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