Several weeks ago, Dr. Ellen Peisner-Feinberg gave a presentation on her research in public preschool in North Carolina to UNC’s School of Education. She detailed a demographic profile of North Carolina, the need for state-funded preschool programs and the results from studies of children who completed state-funded preschool versus those that did not. Though I was born and raised in North Carolina, many of her facts and findings surprised me, so I would like to share them with you to give you some food for thought.
When most people think of North Carolina, they think of basketball, being able to be at both the beach and the mountains quickly, perhaps some rural areas and maybe, the Panthers. While this is a nice snapshot of my home state (I admit to my bias) Dr. Peisner-Feinberg highlighted some of the not-so-pretty truths about it. North Carolina has the tenth highest poverty rate in the US, with 23% of children living in poverty (more information about poverty in NC here). Kids living below the poverty line are more disadvantaged in education as there are not typically enough resources before kindergarten (or after) to provide academic support and aid outside of school as well as decreased parent involvement because of the high rate of parents living in poverty working multiple jobs to provide financially.
To assume that these kids will miraculously be on grade level in kindergarten, is to be ignorant to reality. Preschool and pre-kindergarten programs are necessary to help these kids start kindergarten with an even playing field. If students are not equal academically at this stage in their academic careers the achievement gap will continue to grow. Without preschool, kids who live in poverty are more likely to be retained in grades, be placed in a special education classroom, have higher rates of teen pregnancy, have lover educational attainment as adults and have lower reading and math achievement scores.
However, after analyzing several small-scale, comprehensive, birth-five programs, Dr. Peisner-Feinberg found that these effects could be decreased and reversed. Currently, there are about 2,000 classrooms across North Carolina serving about 30,000 children who must be deemed at-risk by an evaluation. The preschools strive to be high-quality, but policy changes and additional funds are necessary to reach more kids and reach them more meaningfully.
In order to do this, Dr. Peisner-Feinberg had discussed several policy implications. To ensure the best quality and quantity, there needs to be an increase in birth-kindergarten licensure of teachers, an increase in quality of preschools from medium-high to high, increase the number of bilingual teachers (particularly Spanish speaking) and funds and education to provide resources to families to work with their kids at home. Though the preschool curriculum may seem like common knowledge, kids learn more than just shapes and colors. While attending preschool, kids learn how to be in a classroom environment, how to be apart from their parents for a few hours, how to interact with other children and how to follow instructions. These skills are foundational for success in kindergarten and it would be a disservice to our community and others to deprive community members of this opportunity.