MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This weekend, we've been focusing on the new pressures on third grade. Yesterday, we had a report from Florida, the first state to require third graders to show adequate reading proficiency or be held back. Oklahoma has also adopted this approach. Alexandra Starr reports from there today on how it puts pressure on teachers to get kids reading at younger ages.
MELANIE METTER: Would you like some granola?
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: It's breakfast with books and dad day at the Community Action Project, or CAP. It's a nonprofit that runs early childhood education centers across Tulsa. Hector Pena is reading with his 3-year-old on a rug, quizzing him on colors.
HECTOR PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).
STARR: This event is just one way CAP promotes literacy. Its preschool classrooms have two teachers and no more than 20 students. Kids master numbers...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Five, six, (unintelligible).
STARR: ...And the alphabet.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).
METTER: Good job. And nice work, Mia (ph), staying right on your letters.
MIA: Thank you.
STARR: Oklahoma's had universal pre-K for two decades. Three fourths of its 4-year-olds are in some kind of preschool program. CAP receives state and federal funding but is also supported by an Oklahoma-based Family Foundation. It only accepts kids from very low-income households, and they keep a long waiting list. The kids who go through the program are well-prepared for kindergarten, where the standards have been ratcheted up.
METTER: Very early on, we have to put them on a plan if we think that they're going to be held back in third grade for a test.
STARR: That's Melanie Metter, a kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School. She's referring to the state reading test Oklahoma third graders must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. There are exceptions for kids with special needs and for children who have been in the country for less than two years. Still, as Metter points out, English-language learners who didn't go to preschool will have a tough time catching up.
METTER: Some of them, it's their first experience in school and their first year with English.
STARR: That's an increasing part of the student body in Tulsa. Latinos make up about a third of the enrollment in the district, and they are the majority at Rosa Parks. Pedro Noguera is a professor at UCLA who has studied the experience of students of color in public schools. He thinks that retaining kids who have trouble reading can be an inappropriate response.
PEDRO NOGUERA: It starts with diagnosing the learning need and then developing a response tailored to the needs of that child. That's what affluent parents do. They'll get an expert outside of school.
STARR: As he points out, poor families can't afford that, and the increased academic expectations have not been accompanied with more funding for schools in Oklahoma. The state ranks among the lowest in per pupil spending in the country.
NOGUERA: We hold schools accountable. We often hold kids accountable - in this case, with the retention. But the state legislature doesn't hold itself accountable for putting the resources in place to ensure that schools can meet the learning needs of kids.
STARR: Oklahoma, like a lot of states, adopted mandatory retention in the past few years, so there isn't a lot of data about its impact yet. Diane Horm is a professor of early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma. She says against this broader backdrop, the state's investment in pre-K can seem like a paradox.
DIANE HORM: The fact that it is the state of Oklahoma that has a reputation for struggling with public education and other social services to have this program is kind of a unique contrast.
STARR: The children who have access to pre-K will be better prepared for the more demanding expectations of elementary school. Those who don't could catch up to their peers in a way they may not want - by repeating third grade. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in Tulsa, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.