myFutureNC Blog Series: Start Early to Finish Strong

By: Cyndi Soter O’Neil, Senior Policy Advisor, ChildTrust Foundation

 

My children are still in elementary and middle school, but we’ve been discussing college plans with them since they were old enough to hold a board book in their chubby little hands. While it may sound ridiculous to engage a toddler in conversations about postsecondary plans, the truth is that a successful path to educational attainment starts at birth and includes high-quality pre-K.

Research tells us that high-quality early care and learning environments starting at birth are critical for reading on grade level by third grade. In turn, third-grade reading proficiency serves as a predictor of school drop-out rates and incarceration levels. Children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers – and the predictions are even worse for students living in poverty. Using the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that means more than 60 percent of North Carolina’s fourth graders – and more than 75 percent of those who are black or Hispanic – are at increased risk for dropping out of high school.

While pre-K isn’t the beginning of early learning or the only factor impacting success, it’s an important component in ensuring that students are on track for reading proficiently by the end of third grade. And it’s a strategy we know how to do well in North Carolina. According to a recent study by Duke University researchers, children enrolled in NC Pre-K performed better throughout elementary school, with gains lasting through fifth grade. The impacts were seen in students across economic levels, and research suggests a “spillover” effect to classmates who were not enrolled in state preschool programs.

Ensuring that the positive effects of pre-K reach North Carolina’s youngest children and persist through postsecondary attainment won’t happen by accident, which is why the work of myFutureNC is so important. As the myFutureNC Commissioners continue these discussions, I’d ask them to consider the following questions:

  • How do we ensure that all families have access to affordable, high-quality early care and education, regardless of income level, race/ethnicity, or geography?
  • How can we support high-quality elementary education to sustain the gains from pre-K?
  • In what ways can we engage parents, families, and communities so we can learn from them and include them in decision-making?
  • How can we best use data to inform systems and teaching practices in early learning?
  • What can state agencies do to increase alignment and coordination as they work in different areas within the early childhood landscape?

With efforts like the myFutureNC listening sessions and the North Carolina Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative, our state has an opportunity to engage many stakeholders around these and other key questions. By starting with a focus on our youngest students, myFutureNC has the power to influence long-term change around educational attainment.

 

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Author
Cyndi Soter O’Neil
Senior Policy Advisor, ChildTrust Foundation