Business leaders want big enrollment increases in the state’s pre-kindergarten program, presenting increased participation as a key strategy to improving student reading skills and job readiness.
The Business Roundtable, a national association of business leaders that encourages public policy changes, released a report last week on improving literacy that focuses on six strategies to get students reading well by the end of third grade.
Jim Goodnight, CEO of Cary-based SAS, led the Business Roundtable task force that developed the report. Along with other state business executives, he spoke Thursday on recommendations specific to North Carolina.
The business leaders said they are asking Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature to focus on three goals:
▪ Creating a “comprehensive and coordinated system” of programs for children from birth through age eight that ensures accountability.
▪ Connecting data systems that track children’s progress and allow for early intervention.
▪ Expanding NC Pre-K enrollment.
Several of the business leaders emphasized the need for higher enrollment in NC Pre-K, the state’s program for at-risk 4-year-olds, while connecting improved elementary school literacy to successful adult employment.
The state’s pre-kindergarten program has expanded slowly. About 29,400 children were enrolled last year, said Tom Nelson, CEO of Charlotte-based National Gypsum Co. The program had money to add 260 children, but more than 66,000 children are eligible.
Eligibility is based on family income, and other factors such as developmental disability, or limited English knowledge.
“If we want to ensure all children in North Carolina are reading proficiently by the end of third grade, we need to expand our NC Pre-K program for all eligible children,” he said.
State Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, has focused on improving literacy. He was behind a 2012 law that was meant to ensure that most students read well by the end of third grade before they’re promoted. The legislature has funded programs to support the goal, such as summer reading camps for struggling readers and systematic ways to check how well students read and how quickly their reading is improving.
The business report singles out North Carolina for developing a “state-of-the-art” system of measuring students’ skills and knowledge in kindergarten.
But the literacy problem persists. The law allows students who are not reading well by the end of third grade to advance to fourth grade if they receive intensive reading instruction. Students who don’t read well continue to advance through school.
Fourth-graders’ scores on a national reading test called NAEP improved in 2015, but only 38 percent of state students read at a level of proficient or better. North Carolina’s average score and proficiency rates were better than the national average.
“By 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require post-secondary education or training,” Goodnight said. “Currently, however, only 42 percent of North Carolinians have the education required for these jobs of the future.”
Some legislators question whether pre-kindergarten will have long-lasting benefits, Goodnight said.
The business leaders cited research that concludes early education offers a good return on investment.
“These studies have found that children in these programs are six to eight months ahead of their peers in literacy development when they enter kindergarten – a significant amount of time when you are talking about 5-year-olds,” said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina.
The results of a Duke University study released late last year found gains for children enrolled in the state’s early childhood programs, Smart Start and N.C. Pre-K, lasted through fifth grade. N.C. Pre-K participants were less likely to be placed in special education when they got older, and were less likely to be held back in elementary school.
Reading proficiency in third grade can predict whether a student will drop out in high school, the business report says, referring to research published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Jobs that require more than a high school diploma are becoming more prevalent.
Nationally, businesses are finding it hard to find qualified candidates who possess skills required for available jobs. A survey last year of Business Roundtable members found that reading and writing were important to 82 percent of available jobs.
Strong reading is required for in-demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, the report says.