The Case for NC Pre-K: A Research and Policy Talk

Earlier this week, I attended a talk titled “Evaluation of the NC Pre-K Program: Research to Policy.”  The talk was given by Dr. Peisner-Feinberg, a research scientist who has conducted evaluations of the NC Pre-K Program since its inception over a decade ago.

Dr. Peisner-Feinberg opened her talk with some alarming statistics.  In North Carolina, over half a million children are living in poverty – which comes to about 23% of all children in the state.

She then provided an overview of what Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs are and the implications that exist for state pre-K programs.  To answer the question of why ECE programs should be prioritized, she shared some past research findings on their significance: higher reading and math achievement scores, students’ likelihood of being retained in grade or in special education, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and greater educational attainments as adults.  The implications for state pre-K paint a more conflicted and contentious picture: research findings are based on a few small-scale, comprehensive, birth-5 programs, not feasible to implement statewide on a large scale, and there is a dire need to evaluate state pre-K programs.

Dr. Peisner-Feinberg then provided an overview of the NC Pre-K Program.  I went to Pre-K in Florida, so this particular chunk of information was totally new to me (and very interesting).  According to the talk, the NC Pre-K Program targets low-income students and serves around 30,000 children in approximately 2,000 classrooms.  It is classroom based and follows a school day & year model.  The teacher-child ratio is impressive: 1:9 with a cap of 18 kids per class.

So, how was and is the NC Pre-K Program evaluated?  As Dr. Peisner-Feinberg explained, it is through the collaboration with state agencies that studies are conducted yearly to address key research questions.  The primary question surrounding this evaluation is the level of quality of the program.  Teacher licensure is one incredibly important factor and can have a huge impact on the quality of the state program.  According to the talk, teacher qualifications over time have increased greatly in regards to B-K licensure: in 2002-03, 40% of teachers had B-K licensure.  By 2015-16, the statistic increased to 85%.

After giving the talk attendees a thorough and comprehensive background of evaluation, Dr. Peisner-Feinberg shared key findings from the studies she helped conduct for program evaluation.

One of the studies she shared with us was to determine the short-term effects of participation in NC pre-K.  She described it as a Kindergarten comparison study in which propensity score matching was applied to groups of Kindergarten students who either were NC Pre-K participants or were not NC pre-K participants.  The students were matched on gender, ethnicity, race, chronic health condition, home language variables, family income, primary caregiver education and military status, and household size variables.  The study spanned over 130 Kindergarten classrooms in 24 different NC school districts.  Researchers measured skills at the end of Kindergarten such as language, literacy, math, executive function, and behavior.  Although many of the comparisons did not have sizable differences, researchers found significant differences across all math measures between the two groups.

Another study Dr. Peisner-Feinberg discussed was to help determine the long-term effects of participation in NC pre-K.  Dubbed the 3rd Grade Comparison Study, the study was a secondary data analysis in which researchers matched NC pre-K administrative data with NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) data.  The participants in the study were two cohorts of all 3rd graders in NC who qualified for free and reduced price lunch.  The groups compared, again, where NC pre-K participants and non-participants.  The measures were 3rd grade EOG mathematics and reading assessments (adjusted for gender, race, ethnicity, state, and local PPE).  The EOG effect sizes were small but significant: 3rd grade students who were participants in NC pre-K had slightly higher math and reading assessment scores than those who were not in NC pre-K.

The policy implications of these findings and classroom observation to further determine classroom quality, according to Dr. Peisner-Feinberg, provided evidence of efforts toward meeting program goals around qualifications and quality.  The quality of NC Pre-K, as she explained, is good.  Overall, she argued that NC pre-K is beneficial for the population it serves.

The talk left one question in my mind: pre-K appears to be very beneficial for students (especially those who are low-income), should there be more of a push towards universal pre-K in the U.S.?  Given funding constraints, are the guidelines for eligibility the most inclusive they can be?

What are your thoughts on state pre-K programs?  How highly should universal pre-K be prioritized in the public education agenda – or should it not be a priority at all?




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