Education

State program evaluators find focus on early childhood education the key to closing achievement gap

Program Evaluation Division of the N.C. General Assembly

What will it take to close the state’s stubborn achievement gap?

That was the question put to Program Evaluation Division (PED) of the N.C. General Assembly, which studied 12 school districts – five in North Carolina – to see what those schools are doing right to close the persistent achievement gap that exist between white children and their brown and black peers.

A part of the answer calls for a laser-like focus on early childhood education to begin to attack the achievement gap before students reach third grade.

Evaluators found the small group of “high-performing, disadvantaged districts” studied by PED are already achieving “average or better” test scores by third grade.

Much of the achievement gap that follows disadvantaged students throughout their K-12 careers is already present by third grade, program evaluators said.

“Students in predominately disadvantaged districts are learning from third-to eighth-grade and doing so at nearly the same rate as students in more advantage districts, so the problem is not a lack of learning in predominately disadvantaged districts from third-to eighth grade it’s that they’re so far behind at third-grade.” Jeff Grimes, principal program evaluator, said in a video that accompanied the report.

So, ensuring students receive a sound, basic education in their early years is the way forward in stamping out the achievement gap, Grimes and his colleagues said.

“Thus, the main pathway to higher performance for predominantly disadvantaged districts is by securing high student achievement in the early education years instead of focusing primarily on achieving above average academic growth after third grade,” evaluators wrote in the report titled “North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts.”

The evaluations were part of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee’s work plan for 2018.

The report was released Monday with little discussion.

State Rep. Craig Horn, a committee co-chairman, said the report would be more broadly discussed at the committee’s June meeting.

In an interview, Horn explained why the report and the work that follows it are critical to the success of public schools in North Carolina.

“Like everyone else in the state, I’m frustrated with persistent low performance scores and how early education impacts those,” Horn said. “We need a better strategy because what we’ve been doing is obviously not working.  The schools are not improving and the kids are not getting the education they deserve.”

State program evaluators found that school districts that are closing the achievement gap share these six characteristics:

  • A focus on early education.
  • They increase student learning time.
  • They attract, develop and retain high-quality teachers.
  • The schools use data and coach to improve instruction.
  • They seek additional outside resources/
  • They promote the local school board’s focus on policy and academic achievement.

The 12 school districts studied for the report include these five in North Carolina: Alleghany County Schools, Hickory Public Schools; Jones County Public Schools, Wilkes County Schools and  Whiteville City Schools.

The seven out-of-state school districts were Casey County School District, Kentucky; Durant Independent School District; Oklahoma; Fayette County School Corporation, Indiana; Henderson County School District, Tennessee; Johnson County Schools, Kentucky; Steubenville City Schools, Ohio and Whitley County School District, Kentucky.

Evaluators made two broad recommendations:

  • Require low-performing school districts to create an early childhood learning improvement plan as a part of their regular, require plans for school improvement. Strategies to improve early childhood learning could   include expanding Pre-K program participation among disadvantaged students, improving the quality of Pre-K and providing instructional coaching focused on Pre-K through third grade.
  • Require an assessment of early childhood learning as part of the Department Instruction’s comprehensive needs assessment process for district. DPI should begin including early childhood learning assessments as part of its comprehensive needs assessment program no later than July 1, 2020.

 

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