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Perspective | Early childhood education, care, and support

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the March 27, 2021 broadcast of Education Matters: “Setting the stage for early childhood development.” 

We often hear teachers and administrators talk about how their students come to their schools with such diverse backgrounds, competencies, and experiences. This is true at all grade levels, but often particularly so in kindergarten, as we recognize that some students have had extensive experiences in social settings or are already reading while others may have only had limited formal education or access to text.

Other students have adverse childhood experiences or may not have yet been exposed to English. This all affects where they are as individuals and students when they enter our schools. As we talked previously in our discussion about early literacy, progress in understanding how a student’s brain works provides us with the opportunity to address the many factors that can support a child to reach their full potential and to understand how to best meet their needs in their academic, social, and emotional learning.

Access to early childhood learning opportunities, care, and supports are key.

High-quality care and learning environments beginning at birth are critical to the success of North Carolina’s children and set the foundation for how they are positioned to succeed in school and beyond. Early childhood education is typically defined as the span of time between birth through age 8 and includes child care, informal and formal education, and literacy. North Carolina faced challenges in all of these areas pre-pandemic and each has been affected even more by COVID-19.

According to recent research that was released before the pandemic, only half of all North Carolina parents were able to access any type of center-based or formal early childhood care. Six months into the pandemic, that rate fell to less than one-in-three.

Further, the analysis finds that “households of color face more early education challenges: the care they rely on is lower quality, with fewer employer supports; and the pandemic has disproportionately impaired their access to child care.” For our economic recovery and future prosperity, it is imperative that North Carolina takes swift action to ensure all of our children are well cared for and well prepared for academic and social success.

There are many ingredients that contribute to creating a high-quality early learning environment, ranging from innovative pedagogical approaches to expanding outside-of-the-classroom supports for families and children. Many of these ideas we heard about from our guests today, and they are also lifted up as key action steps to take in a comprehensive plan filed recently in the Leandro case.

First, we must expand and improve access to early intervention services for our children with special needs who require extra support during the critical years from birth to age three. Increasing state and local staffing to address gaps in providing services to families with infants and toddlers who have developmental delays and medical conditions is a critical action step our state can take, and requires sustained, recurring investments in order to ensure this population of children can access the resources they need to thrive and succeed.

Second, as education advocates have recommended for many years, North Carolina should continue to expand the state’s NC Pre-K program to ensure that high-quality educational settings are available to all eligible 4-year-old children across our state. These settings positively impact at-risk children’s language and literacy, math, and social and emotional skills so that they come to kindergarten ready to learn.

In addition, Smart Start is a statewide network of local partnerships that provides critical early childhood system infrastructure to improve the quality of early learning and development for children from birth through age 5. A nationally renowned program designed to fill in a substantial gap in resources needed to ensure children have access to high-quality care and services, Smart Start has never been fully funded. Let’s work together to ensure those funding targets are met by incrementally scaling up the program annually through 2028 to meet the program’s goal for a robust early childhood system infrastructure.

Finally, we must do much more to improve the early childhood educator pipeline. Early childhood educators are persistently low-paid across the industry, and often lack critical benefits to ensure that they, too, can provide for their own children and families’ needs. Educational attainment-based salary supplements for early childhood educators comprise the first step North Carolina should take to invest in the pipeline. Other critical supports include providing benefits for our early childhood educators, investing in ongoing professional development, and developing an early childhood teacher preparation program with incentives.

We know that early childhood learning opportunities, care, and supports make a huge difference for our students — a difference that lasts well beyond the early years and throughout a child’s education and career. We understand how the brain works and what is needed to ensure that our youngest children have the opportunity to reach their potential. While there is much work to be done, we can build on the successes of our current programs and know where the investments are needed. So much of a person’s brain development happens before they get to kindergarten and through the early years of schooling, and we must continue to expand how we think about the education continuum — for our students, our families, and our state’s workforce and economy.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.