Politics & Government

Want students to improve in school? NC report says focus on early childhood learning.

If North Carolina wants to raise student achievement in its high-poverty school systems then it needs to focus on early childhood learning to get children off to the good start they need, according to a new state report.

The report from the Program Evaluation Division found that it’s uncommon for high-poverty school districts to perform well and that the few that are successful share common characteristics such as pre-kindergarten programs. Legislative staffers told state lawmakers on Monday that the state can help with that goal of improving early childhood learning.

“In North Carolina, opportunities exist to improve achievement in predominantly disadvantaged districts through state funding and other forms of support,” said Jeff Grimes, the principal program evaluator who worked on the report.

NC Pre-K, the state’s program for at-risk 4-year-olds, serves 29,791 students, roughly 47 percent of the state’s eligible children. Multiple groups, including prominent state business leaders, have called on lawmakers to sharply increase pre-kindergarten enrollment so that at least 75 percent of at-risk children are being served.

Last year, state lawmakers included money in the budget to serve an additional 3,000 children through 2021. This year, the Senate budget includes no additional funding while the House budget includes $1 million to start a virtual pre-K pilot program.

Lawmakers charged the Program Evaluation Division with looking at high-performing school systems with “predominantly economically disadvantaged student populations” — those with a large share of low-income students — to see why they’re doing so well. What staffers found is that there aren’t many districts to choose from.

Just 16 percent of predominantly disadvantaged North Carolina school districts are performing at grade level or better, based on tests. It’s even lower nationally at 5 percent of districts performing at grade level.

“Economic disadvantage is a very powerful predictor of student achievement at the district level,” Grimes said.

Grimes said the data shows that wide gaps exist between the affluent and less affluent districts in third-grade performance. Both types of districts show about the same amount of academic growth from fourth through eighth grade with the gap remaining wide because they started so far apart at an early age.

“What happens in early childhood largely explains how a school district performs in eighth grade,” Grimes said.

The state’s Read To Achieve program is focused on getting children reading by the end of third grade. Reading scores have dropped, which is causing state lawmakers to retool Read To Achieve.

In the economically poor districts that are performing well, children are showing high achievement in third grade, according to Grimes. The report looked at 12 successful districts to see what sets them apart including five in North Carolina: Alleghany, Jones and Wilkes counties and the Hickory and Whiteville city school systems.

All 12 districts have pre-kindergarten programs. In four of the five North Carolina districts in the report, at least 75 percent of their eligible children were enrolled in the NC Pre-K program.

The report found that the districts also used other strategies but the one thing in common was a high priority on early childhood education, Grimes said.

Based on the report’s recommendations, the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee on Monday recommended draft bills that:

Require low-performing school districts to develop an early childhood improvement plan.

Require an assessment of early childhood learning as part of the state Department of Public Instruction’s assessment of the needs of low-performing school districts.

Rep. Craig Horn, co-chairman of the oversight committee, said there’s no “magic bullet. “ But he said the report shows the need to address the “preparation gap” by which 5-year-old children are entering kindergarten having heard millions fewer words than some of their classmates.

“We can not, with all due respect to farmhands, we can not be raising a generation of farmhands,” said Horn, a Union County Republican. “We’ve got to provide opportunities for every child to be prepared when they begin in school.”

Sen. Andy Wells, a Catawba County Republican, cautioned against requiring any specific strategy such as pre-kindergarten. He said it should be left up to individual districts to decide what to use.

“There’s no master plan that state government can come up with and fix this problem,” Wells said. “There are a number of steps that you can take but it seems to me from reading this report that the most important one is that you take the care to have a plan. A plan and not the plan.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.