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Will North Carolina lead or lag on early learning?

Previously hailed as a forerunner on early learning and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the recently released revised draft of North Carolina’s ESSA plan by the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) no longer recognizes birth-to-eight alignment as a guiding ESSA strategy.

ESSA puts states in the education driver seat, and our policymakers have set the course, recognizing that the birth-to-eight-years represent a unique developmental continuum that build the foundation for all future learning.

  • Our General Assembly mandated the development of a comprehensive approach to early childhood education from birth through third grade and created a Birth-to-Third Grade Interagency Council and an Associate Superintendent of Early Education to get it done.
  • Our State Superintendent regularly speaks to the impact early learning has on third grade reading proficiency.
  • Our Governor is working to make North Carolina a top 10 education state by 2025 beginning with high quality early childhood education.

The state’s ESSA plan, however, backs away from recognizing that early learning is an evidence-based strategy to achieving North Carolina’s academic goals. The plan should reflect the science of how children develop. Brain scientists have discovered that during children’s earliest years, their experiences are built into their bodies — shaping the brain’s architecture and creating the foundation for future learning. These findings, along with decades of research, have generated widespread, bipartisan support for early learning. The following is from a new report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation authored by the American Enterprise Institute:

“A root cause of low K-12 performance is that we’ve neglected the critical first link in the human development chain. Children’s earliest experiences shape their cognitive, social, and emotional abilities and determine their aptitude to learn. Instead of trying to close achievement gaps after children have entered school, it’s far more efficient to prevent those gaps from emerging in the first place.”

Previous drafts of NC’s ESSA plan devoted a section to birth-through-eight and noted that ESSA provided a vehicle for advancing the General Assembly’s mandate to “develop and implement a statewide vision for early childhood education.” Recommendations from a diverse group of stakeholders developed in partnership with DPI’s Office of Early Learning were included. Most of those recommendations have been removed or scaled back.

North Carolina also misses the opportunity to prioritize young children’s success in its accountability system. Neither the ESSA plan nor the new school report card measures passed by the General Assembly include any school quality measures for children in prekindergarten through third grade. The overwhelming majority of states that have submitted their ESSA plans to date are incorporating a measure of chronic absenteeism into their accountability systems because it serves as an early warning indicator, brings focus and resources to the early grades, and is actionable at the state, district, and school levels. Furthermore, school districts are already required to collect this data. (Learn more here.)

The General Assembly, the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent, and the Governor are required to review the ESSA plan before DPI submits it to the U.S. Department of Education for approval in September. As written, the proposed ESSA plan does not reflect their joint recognition that the years from birth to eight are critical to creating either a strong or weak foundation for children’s learning. As the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, “Childcare is early education, regardless of the building it occurs in or what we call it. The question is only whether it’s advancing or impeding children’s learning.”

There is still time to ensure that our ESSA plan continues North Carolina’s bold and proud history of leading the nation on early learning policy and investments. Visit to learn more.

Tracy Zimmerman

Tracy Zimmerman is the executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation.