Commentary by Justin Guillory, Executive Director, Think NC First

Think NC First’s mission is to combat the tendency of North Carolina’s political leadership to ignore evidence, research and scientific facts when crafting public policy. In no area is that problem more vivid than early childhood education.

Ignoring all the evidence and the cost-benefit analyses, state lawmakers have decided to tear down North Carolina’s nationally recognized system of early childhood education under the guise of reform. The cuts to Smart Start and NC Pre-K, combined with policy changes spelled out by the “Excellent Public Schools Act,” signal a fundamental shift in North Carolina’s historic commitment to early childhood education.

Previous North Carolina leaders rightly invested in early childhood. The early years in a child’s life are critical to cognitive and social development, and intervention at that age can tip the scales in favor of the child’s future prospects.

But the current Republican leadership is now focused on third-grade reading, going so far as to require summer school and threaten grade repetition for third graders who fail standardized reading tests.

That’s a pathetic attempt to solve a serious problem.

While third grade has long been recognized as a momentous age for determining long-term success for a student, state Republicans have dubiously shifted the time for intervention to the end of the third-grade school year.

Waiting until the end of third grade is literally waiting until the last possible moment something common sense says is a poor idea.

A recent study from Duke University confirms that notion. Duke scholars found that Smart Start and NC Pre-K actually reduce the need for third-grade remediation and could save the state money by cutting costly special education programs:[i]

“…we find that Smart Start and More at Four each significantly reduced the probabilities that children would be placed in special education programs as of third grade.  Because special education programs are far more costly than regular education programs, the reduced rate of placement as of grade three could save the state substantial amounts of money.” – Ladd and Muschkin

In other words, proper investments in pre-kindergarten programs may relieve the need for special third-grade remediation.

Another recent Duke study finds a significant difference in educational outcomes for students with attention problems in first grade, but with diminishing effects for students whose attention problems appear in later grades,[ii] again suggesting that third grade is too late to intervene.

But third grade remediation doesn’t sound like a bad idea at face value. And that’s why it’s so dangerous. In many ways it’s a fig leaf or a distraction. It gives the appearance that state lawmakers are focused on the education of young children, while they ignore the truly valuable programs.

Think’s analysis of early childhood research is an attempt to get policy-makers to once again consider the evidence when making public policy. Hopefully we have intervened before it’s too late.

[i] H. Ladd and C. Muschkin. “Research confirms effectiveness of early childhood education investments.” Durham Herald-Sun. Nov. 8, 2013

[ii] D. Rabiner, M. Carrig and K. Dodge. (2013) “Attention Problems and Academic Achievement: Do Persistent and Earlier-Emerging Problems Have More Adverse Long-Term Effects?” Journal of Attention Disorders.