Early Childhood

N.C.'s Pre-K Program Leads to Longer-Term Learning Gains, Study Finds

By Marva Hinton — July 21, 2017 2 min read
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A new report that summarizes 15 years of research on North Carolina’s Pre-K program finds that the learning gains students make through the program carry on well into elementary school.

“What we found ... is that children who attended the program look better in terms of performance than children who didn’t attend the program,” said Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the principal investigator on this project.

The program, known as NC Pre-K, is free for 4-year-olds, and 90 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Students from higher-income families are also eligible to attend if they have other risk factors such as a disability or limited English proficiency. The program also accepts the children of active military members. It started in the 2001-02 school year when it was known as More at Four.

Benefits Through 3rd Grade

Researchers with the institute have been studying the program since it began. They found that students who attended scored higher on end-of-grade tests in reading and math in 3rd grade than students from low-income families who had not attended. And, when compared to all students, these students scored closer to their more affluent peers.

“There’s still some achievement gap in terms of income in this country, and I think one year of pre-K does not completely erase that achievement gap,” said Peisner-Feinberg. “But there certainly was evidence that it was starting to help.”

The researchers also found that these students had better language, literacy, and math skills going into kindergarten than their peers with similar economic backgrounds who had not attended the program. At the end of kindergarten, these students also had better math and executive function skills.

The students who made the most gains were those with limited English proficiency. The researchers also found that the program had a lot of success with dual-language learners.

“These children make gains not only in skills in English but also in most of the skills that we’ve measured in Spanish as well, even though the language of instruction in these classrooms is English,” said Peisner-Feinberg.

So what makes NC Pre-K so effective?

Peisner-Feinberg points to strong program guidelines related to classroom practices, which have remained consistent over time. She also cites strong teacher qualifications. More than 99 percent of the teachers in the program have bachelor’s degrees or above, and more than 85 percent hold a birth-to-kindergarten license.

“Those are very high numbers compared to what you see on average, particularly when you look at private settings in other kinds of pre-K programs,” said Peisner-Feinberg.

More than 350,000 students have participated in the program since it began.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.