NC Lawmakers Focus on Early Learning

Early learning was the focus of the NC House Select Committee on Education Strategy and Practices last week.

On February 25, the NC House Select Committee on Education Strategy and Practices discussed prekindergarten, including the recent evaluation of Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program. Tennessee made national headlines recently when evaluators found that gains evident at kindergarten were not sustained. (See our analysis here.)

Lawmakers sought to understand how to leverage the gains made in pre-k. John Pruette, Director of the Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Early Learning, shared research on North Carolina’s public prekindergarten program, NC Pre-K. Studies found that NC Pre-K produces significant outcomes for children, including higher third grade reading and math scores and reduced special education placements.[i] The most recent evaluation of the program in 2015 found that students’ progress exceeded what is expected for normal developmental growth.[ii]

While studies of NC Pre-K show prolonged benefits, particularly when combined with Smart Start, Pruette said fully leveraging the gains made through prekindergarten requires:

  • Maintaining high quality prekindergarten programs that address structural and process quality. Structural quality is about the characteristics of the space and process quality is about the child’s actual experiences in the classroom.
  • Strengthening of the educational continuum through third grade. Pruette noted that it will take true alignment of standards, curriculum and instructional practices with an emphasis on process quality that is supportive of growth and development across multiple domains.

Pruette shared the graph below to demonstrate that teaching approaches in the early grades often are not developmentally appropriate for young children. The graph demonstrates that the majority of instructional time is spent in didactic instruction – teachers talking and children listening – a style that is inconsistent with how young children best learn.

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Joan Lord Vice President Education Data, Policy Research and Programs also presented. Lord commended North Carolina on the quality of its public prekindergarten program. She noted that the state’s biggest challenge was access, with too few children from low-income families attending prekindergarten programs. She told the committee, “Prekindergarten has economic and cultural benefit for states. When we realize that, prekindergarten doesn’t become vulnerable in tough times.”

Dr. Mark Lipsey from Peabody Research Institute Vanderbilt University shared a different perspective, questioning the benefits of state public prekindergarten programs. He said that there were only two well-controlled studies of prekindergarten – the Head Start Impact Study and his TN Voluntary Pre-k Study – both of which he said found no sustained effect.

In the conclusion of his presentation, Dr. Lipsey recognized the importance of intervening early, saying “Supporting the positive development of disadvantaged children is an important goal with implications for their well-being and for the social and economic well-being of the communities in which they will live as adults. We do not see this as a question of being for or against public pre-k but, rather, a question of what best accomplishes that goal. Some form of public pre-k may be part of the answer, but is unlikely to be the whole answer.”

This last point was addressed by Cindy Watkins, President of the North Carolina Partnership for Children. She emphasized the importance of using brain science to inform policy. During children’s first 2000 days, the time between when a child is born and he or she begins kindergarten, brain architecture is forming, creating either a strong or weak foundation for all future learning. The connections – the wiring that forms the brain’s architecture – develop in early childhood.

Watkins told the committee that every experience a baby has forms a neural connection in the brain. These connections form very rapidly in the early years at a rate of 700 synapses per second. Connections that get used more strengthen, and those used less fade. Just like building a house, what comes first builds a foundation for all that comes later.

Watkins reiterated that for optimal development and a strong foundation for learning, beginning at birth, children need health and development on track, supported and supportive families and communities and high quality birth-to-eight care and education.

Legislators asked numerous questions of the panelists. We documented the Q & A on Twitter. See the story here.

[i] Ladd, Helen F., Clara G. Muschkin, and Kenneth A. Dodge. “From Birth to School: Early Childhood Initiatives and Third-Grade Outcomes in North Carolina.” J. Pol. Anal. Manage. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 33.1 (2013): 162-87. Web.

[ii] Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Schaaf, J. M., Hildebrandt, L. M., Pan, Y., & Warnaar, B. L. (2015). Children’s kindergarten outcomes and program quality in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program: 2013-2014 statewide evaluation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.