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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.

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