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North Carolina State Preschool Grads See Growth Through Kindergarten

Children who attended North Carolina's state preschool program continued to make better-than-expected gains by the end of kindergarten, according to a March 25 study by the Frank Porter Graham Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We don't usually feature more than one report from the same source in the same week, but this study caught my attention. Whether or not preschool offers an ongoing benefit has been a matter of contention. Critics of starting or expanding state preschool programs point to findings that Head Start and other broad public programs seem to have little effect on students' academic performance later in elementary school. But this study belies that argument. 

The study tracked the learning and performance of 561 at-risk students over two years (some students were removed from the study in the second year because they hadn't enrolled in kindergarten or had moved out of state). Students started in one of 99 preschool classrooms and went on to one of 340 kindergarten classrooms. Despite the variety of settings, children showed better-than-expected gains in oral language, literacy, math, and behavior. 

"Their scores were generally in the expected ranges for their age group, with mean scores slightly below the norm at the beginning of pre-K and slightly above the norm by the end of kindergarten for most standardized measures," according to the report.

Interestingly, this study did not compare the state preschool students to similar students who had not attended preschool. Rather, it tracked the arc of student growth over time and found that enrolled students made slightly better-than-expected growth.

"Students made progress on most skills through kindergarten at an even greater rate than would be expected for normal developmental growth," Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, director of FPG's National Pre-K and Early Learning Evaluation Center, said in a statement.

Researchers also evaluated the quality of the preschool classrooms students attended and found them to be of generally high quality. Sixty-seven percent got five stars (the highest rating) on North Carolina's quality measure, and 19 percent got four stars. Almost all lead teachers in North Carolina's state program (99 percent) hold a bachelor's degree, and the majority of assistant teachers hold the state's "birth-kindergarten" license. Those rates have increased over time, according to the report.

North Carolina is one of only four states that met all 10 of the National Institute for Early Education's quality benchmarks in 2013, the most recent year for which there is data. But the program for the state's "at-risk" children is not large. Twenty-three percent of North Carolina's 4-year-olds and 5 percent of its 3-year-olds were enrolled in the program in 2012-2013.  

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