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Joint evaluation oversight committee moves forward bill on early learning focus for low-performing districts

As a result of a report released at the end of May studying predominantly disadvantaged districts that are succeeding academically, the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division is recommending that low-performing districts focus on early childhood learning.

The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight committee Monday approved a draft bill that would require low-performing districts to include an early childhood component in their already-required school improvement plans. And, as the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does comprehensive needs assessments on low-performing districts, the bill would also mandate those assessments include an analysis of early childhood learning in the district.

“Focusing energy on (pre-K to third grade) is kind of like sharpening your saw,” said Sen. Andy Wells, R- Alexander, Catawba before the bill was unanimously moved forward by committee members. “And you go out in the woods and cut down a few trees with a dull saw, it’s not a lot of fun and you look like a fool to anybody watching. If you take a little time to put an edge on, a precise edge, you can get a whole lot more done. And I think this whole process about creating a plan, an individual plan by LEA, not a state master plan, is a key to this. They need to have a plan. LEAs, you figure out what that plan needs to be. Talk to these folks that are doing it well.”

The research team looked closely at 12 districts, both within and outside of North Carolina, that were both predominantly disadvantaged and performing at or above grade level, as well as national data sets to find broader trends. Jeff Grimes, a division principal program evaluator, said four out of the five North Carolina districts in the study had over 75% of eligible children enrolled in NC Pre-K, the state’s preschool for at-risk four-year-olds — compared to the statewide average of 47%. A superintendent in Kentucky, Grimes said, pinned early childhood learning as the district’s top priority in turning around student outcomes. 

NC program evaluation division recommends focus on early childhood learning in low-performing districts

Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Buncombe, was concerned that the recommendation was not more specific and asked why the report findings did not lead to recommended actions or strategies in early childhood learning. Grimes responded that the intent in having local school districts decide how early childhood learning fits into their overall plans is so “it becomes internally important within those districts.”

The report found all 12 disadvantaged and academically successful districts “valued early education and pursued efforts to support and expand it.” It also found these districts often had efforts to support children and families in their transitions into kindergarten, with communication between parents, preschool teachers, and kindergarten teachers, as well as visits for incoming kindergartners to their elementary school before the school year starts. 

“Our feeling with this recommendation is having districts plan and look at early childhood can certainly help,” Grimes said. The report found most of the academic achievement gap between predominantly disadvantaged schools and those who are more advantaged exists by third grade. That gap does not widen significantly between third and eighth grade. This finding points to the experiences before third grade as the most important in eliminating that gap. 

The report similarly found that the gap between high-performing disadvantaged school districts and disadvantaged school districts who were not high-performing exists by third grade.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, co-chair of the committee, pointed to an even earlier gap in the committee’s discussion of the report and its recommended legislation — “the preparation gap, kids that are not prepared to start kindergarten for all kinds of reasons, some of them are family issues, some of them are academic issues, some of them are physical or medical issues.”

Horn continued that children who can be reached by formal preschool should, and that other children who do not have access still need opportunities to be prepared when they enter school. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), about 52% of 4-year-olds across the state in 2018 were eligible for NC Pre-K, and about 53% of those eligible children were not participating.

“Under any circumstances, we need to reach out to these kids and their families and do everything we can,” Horn said. “As you may know … baked into the budget are some 3,400 additional slots over next two years for NC Pre-K. That’s not enough, it’s not going to cover all the kids that are potentially eligible, and all the kids that are potentially eligible aren’t going to have access. So there’s a lot of things we have to look at. But there’s no question that when we’ve got kids that have heard 30 million more words by the time they’re 5 years old than other kids, we’re going to have a preparation gap. And we as a state, as parents, grandparents, as legislators, we’ve got to find a way to address that.”

The report, which can be found in full below, found other common characteristics across districts who were predominantly disadvantaged but succeeding academically, including maximizing student learning time, seeking additional outside resources, attracting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers, using data and coaching to improve instruction, and promoting a local school board focus on policy and academic achievement.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.