News

Educators tout the benefits of pre-k programs

preschoolA North Carolina legislative panel heard a mostly positive assessment Wednesday on the impacts of a quality pre-k education, with most education experts touting pre-k services as a major boon for students.

“We have a long way to go,” said John Pruett, director of the Office of Early Learning in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.  “There’s a lot of work to do but the state has tremendous opportunities in front of it, if that’s the direction the state wants to take.”

Multiple states launched public pre-k programs in recent years, and in North Carolina, at least one county is considering rolling out publicly funded pre-k too.

Pruett, who helms a DPI office aimed at promoting early childhood education, told members of the House Select Committee on Education Strategy and Practices Wednesday that most studies show a strong pre-k education yields higher test scores, improved graduation rates, reduced behavioral problems and, ultimately, higher earnings.

And pre-k could benefit the state’s at-risk children the most, he said, pointing out the program can help to lessen the achievement gap for low-income children in both reading and math testing.

Experts offered some caveats however, pointing out some studies have shown eventual convergence of test scores between students who attended pre-k and those who did not, the so-called “fadeout” effect.

Indeed, at least one skeptic suggested the data isn’t there yet to support a major ramp-up of pre-k in the state.

Vanderbilt University’s Mark Lipsey presented the findings Wednesday of his 2015 study, which found that Tennessee’s state-run pre-k program—which has helped pay for thousands of low-income children to attend pre-k in the last decade—has yielded questionable results.

While pre-k students initially scored higher than their peers, by the age of 6, their test scores were identical. And, by the age of 7, the pre-k children were actually scoring lower, Lipsey found.

Many responded to that controversial study by pointing out that it contrasts with most of the pre-k research in recent decades.

“I’ve been accused of hating children,” Lipsey said Wednesday. “But we have to figure out what accomplishes the goal. We can’t assume with a lack of evidence.”

However, Pruett told legislators that he believes the state must work to align the pre-k curriculum with that of the early school grades, in order to maintain the academic gains and combat “fadeout.”

Joan Lord, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a compact of education experts in the southwest U.S., told legislators that North Carolina’s focus should mostly be on access to pre-k services.

Only about 40 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds attend pre-k in North Carolina today, which is a relatively low number in the U.S.

Lord also pointed out that it is “affluent” children who are more likely to use the services.

News

Is Elmo really all preschoolers need to succeed?

This week, researchers from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College released a report that finds that the learning gains young children experience from watching Sesame Street are on par with what students learn in preschool.

From The Washington Post:

The researchers also say those effects probably come from Sesame Street’s focus on presenting viewers with an academic curriculum, heavy on reading and math, that would appear to have helped prepare children for school.

While it might seem implausible that a TV show could have such effects, the results build on Nixon-era government studies that found big short-term benefits in watching the show, along with years of focus-group studies by the team of academic researchers who help write “Sesame Street” scripts. Several outside researchers have reviewed the study, and none are known to have questioned its results.

As my toddler channels the Count when totaling the number of grapes he has in his bowl each day (ha, ha, haaaa, as the Count would say), it’s easy to see the impact of Sesame Street’s strong educational components.

But is Elmo enough?

The study’s authors do point out that preschool—Head Start, in particular, which is targeted toward low-income children— is designed to deliver more than just academics. It also comes with access to medical and dental services, family supports and opportunities for socialization that you can’t get from your television set.

That message, however, got a little buried in the Washington Post story titled, “Study: Kids can learn as much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from preschool.”

“There’s a lot of development that happens in an early education setting,” said Rob Thompson, executive director of the children’s advocacy group NC Child. “Children develop important social and emotional skills in pre-kindergarten that help success in school and in all aspects of life.”

North Carolina has been a beacon that other states look toward for how to do preschool right. The return on investing in NC pre-kindergarten is estimated to be $9 for every dollar spent, according to the N.C. Justice Center.*

High- quality preschool can increase a child’s performance in the early school grades and boost high school graduation rates, improve chances of landing a job later in life, and reduce criminal behavior, among other benefits, according to researchers at the Carolina Institute for Public Policy.

But over the past several years, the state has steadily decreased its support for pre-kindergarten programs that target at-risk youth by reducing the number of pre-K slots available to at-risk children.

“Reduced access to early learning for at-risk youth means that many of these children are likely to begin their primary education lagging their peers,” according the Justice Center report.

Wellesley College’s Phil Levine, co-author of the Sesame Street study, emphasized to NC Policy Watch that the children’s show is a great way to augment a high quality preschool program — not a replacement.

“It’s a mistake to think of these things as one or the other,” said Levine, when comparing Sesame Street to preschool. “What you get in terms of the long term effects from pre-K are partly academic and partly nonacademic—and those nonacademic effects are really important.”

Levine says when it comes to fighting poverty and inequality, there’s no magic bullet.

“The more tools in our arsenal, the better—and Sesame Street is just another good one.”

*NC Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.

2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

Lawmakers retreat from investing in early childhood in final state budget

Despite the fact that almost three-quarters of North Carolina voters support expanding NC Pre-K and Smart Start, state lawmakers continued a pattern of underinvestment in key early childhood education services in the state budget they passed this year. NC Pre-K is a proven program which helps prepare children for later success in life, yet lawmakers failed to keep up with the needs of young children in the budget. They provided a one-time $5 million increase for NC Pre-K, but these are not recurring dollars and most of the money goes to increase teacher salaries. While improving teacher pay is critical, there is little left over to provide additional Pre-K slots. This education program currently is not able to serve thousands of children on a waiting list and thousands more who would otherwise be eligible. This is just one example of the many trade-offs state legislators made due to their choice to prioritize tax cuts primarily for those at the top over needed investments in our children, families and workforce.

Child care subsidies, another effective program which helps lower income families afford quality child care and serves as a work support, also took a hit in this year’s budget. Like NC Pre-K, the child care subsidy program helps make sure young children have access to quality early education, and it also has a waiting list of thousands. Lawmakers did little to address the shortage of services and actually made it harder for some low-income families to access this support. They lowered the income eligibility requirements for children under five years old to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $39,000 for a family of three). The program used to be available to young children in families earning up to 75 percent of the state median income (about $42,000 for a family of three). The changes were even worse for school-age children using subsidies for after school care. One positive change lawmakers made in this year’s budget was to how much child care providers are reimbursed for serving children who get subsidies, bringing the cost per child closer to the market rate and helping providers recoup more of their expenses. However, providers still are not paid the full market rate, making it hard for many child care settings to accept children who receive subsidies.

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Commentary

New York City sets an example that North Carolina should emulate

Bill de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio – Image: Official website of the City of New York

In 2014, there are lots of basic public structures and social services that Americans, like the inhabitants in other advanced countries, ought to have a right to take for granted. Paid sick days, paid maternity leave, and free higher education, for example, need to be on any such list.

And here’s another one: free, universal, public pre-Kindergarten.

Fortunately, at least one important American jurisdiction is doing something about it. As this recent New York Times editorial notes, the city of New York kicked off an enormously ambitious program this week to provide public pre-K to 50,000 four-year-olds:

The start of public school on Thursday in New York City should be the usual merry scramble of chattering children and stressed (or relieved) parents. There will also be something new: a fresh crop of 4-year-olds, more than 50,000, embarking on the first day of free, full-day, citywide, city-run prekindergarten.

It’s worth pausing to note what an accomplishment this is. Fifty thousand is a small city’s worth of children, each getting a head start on a lifetime of learning. It is so many families saving the cost of day care or private prekindergarten. It is a milestone of education reform.

The editorial goes on to heap praise on New York mayor Bill de Blasio who made the launch of such a program a key plank in his campaign platform and who now despite plenty of critics — including the Times editorial page — has now made good on his promise.

Let’s hope the program is a rousing success and that, like so many other trends that started in the Big Apple, it catches on all over (even in North Carolina) ASAP.

Uncategorized

Editorial spells out succinct “to do” and “not to do” lists for lawmakers

This morning’s Greensboro News & Record gets it just about right with an editorial entitled “Just the essentials.”

“The legislature’s ‘short’ session convenes today with one essential purpose: to make adjustments to the second year of the biennial state budget.

There’s other work that needs to be done, and some things that should not be done.

In the first category:

* Pay raises for teachers.

Gov. Pat McCrory outlined his proposal last week. It includes substantial raises in starting salaries and for teachers in the first few years of their careers. More experienced teachers also would see increases. The legislature should flesh out and approve a plan to improve teacher compensation and simultaneously revoke its ill-conceived directive for school systems to designate one-fourth of eligible teachers to receive bonuses if they surrender their tenure rights.

* Stricter coal ash regulation.

The massive spill of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden in February alarmed politicians of both parties who had ignored the issue of safe storage for years. Now is the time to set Duke Energy on a course of corrective action and put in place new regulations to protect water.

* Medicaid expansion.

Last year’s decision to reject federal funding to broaden eligibility left an estimated 300,000 or more residents without health care coverage. The legislature should correct this mistake.

* Preschool enrollment.

The legislature last year directed stronger efforts for schools to make sure children can read by the end of third grade but didn’t grant additional resources to get the job done. One way is to pay for more at-risk 4-year-olds to attend prekindergarten programs.

Now, what the legislature should not do…

Click here to read the rest of the editorial.