Study: N.C. Early Education Leads to Fewer Special Education Placements
North Carolina's investments in early-childhood programs led to a reduction in special-education placements, an effect that goes beyond the children actually enrolled in the programs, says a study released online Tuesday in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
At the funding levels that were present in the 2008-09 school year, the state programs reduce the odds of a special education placement among the student population as a whole by 39 percent, according to the researchers, based at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The reductions were seen in the disability categories of specific learning disability, educable mental handicap, and "other health impairment," which includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There were no effects seen in the categories of physical handicap, speech or language impairment, or behavioral-emotional disabilities.
The two early-childhood programs appeared to offer both direct and indirect effects, the study says. For example, the children who were not direct participants in Smart Start or More at Four could have seen benefits from the overall improvement of quality in child-care and preschool settings. Having fewer classmates who need remediation or behavior support is another potential benefit, the researchers suggest.
"For policymakers, I do think these findings could be quite useful because our focus is on investments, and the outcomes that we look at are in terms of population-level impacts," said Clara G. Muschkin, an assistant research professor of public policy at Duke and the associate director of the university's Center for Child and Family Policy. She also directs the North Carolina Education Research Data Center. "It's nice when [an intervention] helps a target group, but it's even more of a financial benefit if we can show evidence of benefits beyond a targeted group."
Smart Start was launched in 1993 and provides state funds to improve early-childhood services for children from birth to age 5. More at Four, which was started in 2001 and renamed the North Carolina Prekindergarten Program in 2011, pays for preschool for 4-year-olds who are from low-income families, have a developmental disability, or do not speak English at home.
The study tracked about 871,000 students who were born in North Carolina between 1988 and 2000 and enrolled in 3rd grade between 1995 and 2010. The analysis was able to break out effects based on the number of dollars invested in each program by examining the investment in different counties. It found that each $100 invested in Smart Start reduced the odds of a student receiving a special education placement by 1 percent; the same investment in the More at Four program reduced those odds by about 3.5 percent.
However, those findings cannot be taken to mean that one program is better than another, Muschkin cautioned—it's not possible to tell, for example, what effect More at Four might have had if Smart Start did not exist.
The programs reduced the odds of receiving a placement due to an educable mental handicap by 9 percent; as a result of other health impairments by at 6 percent; and as a result of specific learning disabilities by 4 percent. Muschkin said that the programs may have provided early services to children who were then able to transition out of special education, or may have provided support so early that children did not need special services when they started school.
Preschool supporters often argue that early-childhood programs have benefits that go beyond what can be measured by standardized tests, and this study's findings lend credence to that argument, Muschkin said.
In addition, an earlier paper by the same researchers that examined the academic outcomes of Smart Start and More at Four also found that the two programs yielded academic benefits that persisted into 3rd grade. That 2013 paper found what it described as "robust" positive impacts in both reading and math—benefits that the researchers said could also be explained by a direct benefit to the young children who were a part of the programs, and spillover effects to those who were not.
[CORRECTION: The original version of this post included an incorrect year for the launch of More at Four.]