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NC Pre-K one of only two state preschool programs in the nation that measure teaching quality and meet standards

NC Pre-K provides high-quality preschool to eligible four-year-olds in North Carolina. The state’s preschool program scored significantly better than the average state preschool program on a recent nationwide assessment of preschool quality. NC Pre-K scores well on having rigorous, well-articulated early learning policies and using best practices.

Notably, North Carolina is:

  • One of only two state preschool programs in the nation that measure and meet standards for high quality teaching;
  • One of only nine programs judged to have effective curriculum;
  • One of only 14 programs that meet criteria for high quality professional development; and
  • One of only 16 programs judged to make data-driven decisions.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the state still has room for improvement on political will, a strong state vision and leadership for preschool, having an integrated system, compensation of teachers, and supporting students with special needs and dual language learners.

NIEER rated 57 programs (some states have more than one program), based on data from the 2017-18 academic year. NC Pre-K fully met nine of NIEER’s 15 “essential elements” characterizing high-quality preschool programs, and partially met the other six. Only two other preschool programs in the nation either met or partially met all 15 elements—Alabama and the Abbott program in New Jersey. The average state preschool program in the nation fully met six elements.

While some of the elements have strict, easily-measurable criteria (i.e., adult-child ratios), others are more subjective (i.e., compelling vision and strong leadership). NIEER warns that practice in the field may vary and be either better or worse than would be expected from a particular policy or guidance.


Essential Elements

NC Met?

Enabling Environment


Political Will


Compelling Vision and Strong Leadership


Rigorous, Articulated Early Learning Policies


Education and compensation


Adult-child ratio and two adults in the classroom


Amount of learning time during the day


Age-appropriate learning standards


System that ensures effective curriculum


Support for students with special needs


Support for dual (English) language learners (DLL)


Strong Program Practices


High quality teaching


Professional development


Child Assessments


Data-driven decision-making


Integrated system


See NIEER’s report for descriptions of how they defined and measured the 15 elements.

Where does NC Pre-K excel?

NIEER’s state profiles report programs’ scores on the 15 essential elements and detail their rationales behind the scoring. See North Carolina’s profile for full details. Some highlights of NC Pre-K’s strengths include:

High quality teaching

Along with Alabama’s program, NC Pre-K is one of only two state preschool programs in the nation that measure and meet standards for high quality teaching. NC Pre-K classrooms must meet at least a 5.0 on an ECERS-R assessment every three years. The ECERS-R (the revised version of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale) measures classroom quality, including interactions between teachers and children.

Effective curriculum

NC Pre-K is one of only nine programs judged to have a system that ensures effective curriculum. NC Pre-K teachers are assigned mentors to support the implementation of curricula and formative assessments. Teachers are trained in the implementation of curriculum and monitored for effective practices. North Carolina has an approved, but not required, curriculum list.

High quality professional development

NC Pre-K is one of only 14 programs that meet criteria for high quality professional development. All NC Pre-K teachers participate in a mentoring/coaching program. Each teacher’s needs are formally assessed and individualized professional development plans are put in place. Teachers typically receive approximately 50 contact hours with coaches having caseloads of 15-25 teachers. In addition, all teachers are required to complete 18 clock hours per year of professional development.

Data-driven decision-making

NC Pre-K is one of only 16 programs judged to make data-driven decisions. A few examples of NC’s data-driven decision-making include:

  • Results of classroom quality ECERS-R assessments are collected and reported by an independent assessor, and staff are given one year to make improvements per an improvement plan.
  • The state regulatory consultants and local NC Pre-K contract administrative agency staff annually observe classrooms for appropriate implementation of curriculum, formative assessments, early learning standards, staff/child ratios, group size, learning environments and health and safety requirements and then provide feedback.
  • Documentation of children’s learning (formative) data are collected by each local NC Pre-K program and NC Division of Child Development, and Early Education (DCDEE) child care consultants monitor for classroom and site compliance with collection of data.

What are NC Pre-K’s opportunities for improvement?

NIEER determined that NC Pre-K has room to improve in a few areas.

Enabling environment and integrated system

NIEER reports that NC only “partially meets” their criteria for political will, a strong state vision and leadership for preschool, and an integrated system. The report cites state funding swings for NC Pre-K and the division of the B-3 education continuum between the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) as reasons for concern.

Compensation of teachers

NC Pre-K gets high marks for teacher education—all lead teachers in NC Pre-K classrooms are required to hold a BA/BS in child development/early childhood education or a related field as well as a NC Birth – K or PK/K add-on license. The program does not equitably compensate teachers, however—only NC Pre-K teachers who teach in public schools are required to have the same starting salary and salary schedule as K-3 public school teachers.

Supporting students with special needs and dual-language learners

NC Pre-K teachers are required to have specific qualifications for working with children with special needs, must follow best practices and receive coaching on working with this population. Program standards require that sites serving children and families who do not speak English or have limited English proficiency are encouraged to hire staff fluent in the child’s native language and provide recruitment, enrollment, and outreach information to families in their home languages. North Carolina was unable to report the number of DLL students served in NC Pre-K, and the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) has developed a plan to better serve dual-language learners.

This report complements NIEER’s annual State of Preschool yearbooks tracking funding, access, and policies supporting state-funded, high-quality pre-K. In 2017, NC Pre-K met eight of the nine quality benchmarks in the yearbook, but came in at the middle of the pack—26th in the nation—for access to the program.

NIEER’s analysis would suggest that NC’s proven, high quality preschool program is a good investment for the state. Stabilizing state funding for the program could allow increased access for more preschoolers, higher compensation for Pre-K teachers to attract and retain a high-quality workforce, and an investment in improving services for dual-language learners.

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Mandy Ableidinger

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Deputy Director.