Children who were enrolled in North Carolina’s early childhood programs performed better throughout elementary school, with gains lasting through fifth grade, according to a study by Duke University researchers.
The findings were published Thursday in the journal Child Development. Researchers at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy analyzed data on more than 1 million North Carolina public school children born between 1988 and 2000, including those who had been enrolled in the state’s Smart Start child-care program and More at Four, the prekindergarten program now known as NC Pre-K.
Children who had been in the state programs had higher test scores, less grade retention and fewer special-education placements through fifth grade, according to the study.
The new research seems to contradict studies in other states that suggest the benefits of pre-K may fade over time, in particular an often-cited study from Tennessee. But the Duke study’s lead author, Kenneth Dodge, professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience, said comparing pre-K in Tennessee and pre-K in North Carolina is like comparing apples and oranges.
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Prekindergarten programs around the United States vary in important ways, he said, including teacher credentials, class size, curriculum, eligibility criteria and spending per student. “We need to get away from thinking that all pre-K programs are the same,” Dodge said.
Duke researchers found that the positive effects for North Carolina children held steady or even grew over the years.
Children living in counties with average levels of Smart Start and More at Four funding saw improved educational outcomes by the end of fifth grade – a gain of six months of reading instruction and three months in math, according to the study. The children also had significantly higher math and reading scores in grades three, four and five.
Both programs reduced the odds that children would end up in special education. The impact was most pronounced among More at Four participants, whose chance of special education placement was cut by 48 percent in fifth grade. Their chance of being held back during elementary school was lowered by 29 percent.
“We are confident that the effects of North Carolina’s two signature programs, which are nationally regarded programs, hold up through the end of elementary school,” Dodge said.
The researchers found the state’s investment in both programs totaled an average of $2,200 per child during the 13-year study period.
Smart Start began in 1993 and expanded to all 100 N.C. counties beginning in the 1998-99 school year. It is focused on child care, health and screening services for children from birth to age 5.
More at Four began in 2001 and has since been renamed NC Pre-K. It targets early education to at-risk 4-year-olds. By 2010, about 25 percent of all North Carolina 4-year-olds were served.
The impacts were seen in students across economic levels, and research suggests a “spillover” effect to classmates of the students who were enrolled in state preschool programs. Sustaining the gains also depends on having quality K-12 education after preschool, Dodge said.
The Duke researchers are now studying whether the positive effects persist into middle school. The team aims to follow the students’ progress through high school and beyond.
“I am confident that these findings support the continuation and expansion of both of these programs in North Carolina,” Dodge said. “But we need to continue to evaluate whether the programs continue to have a positive impact on these children, because the context changes. We’ve got to make sure the quality remains high.”