As policymakers debate the merits of the best approach to improve children's academic success, they would be well served by reading an op-ed published today in the News Observer. Duke University researchers remind us that "research scientists like ourselves can be helpful in sorting out the effectiveness of strategies that have been implemented to achieve common goals."
They note that "over the past two decades, to realize the goal of improving children's academic success, North Carolina has tried a strategy of investing in the first five years of life." They are referring to Smart Start and More at Four. Kenneth Dodge, Helen Ladd, and Claire Muschkin from Duke studied these programs, asking "Do these programs work? Have they made our children better off academically?" The answer was emphatically yes. They write:
"We have analyzed data on educational outcomes for third graders over the past 12 years and find that children who were lucky enough to be born into a county at a time that it received financial support for these programs perform better in third grade than children born into that county at a time when it received less funding for these programs.
'Perform better' means higher average third-grade standardized test scores in reading and mathematics and fewer placements into special education for problem performance.
How much better? About a half year of schooling and 15 percent fewer special education placements. In the world of education, that is a lot better.
Who benefits from these programs? The benefits we identify include not only those to children who directly participate in the programs, but to others as well. All children of a target age in a county benefit by increased standards for child care, curricula and preschool teacher qualifications. Furthermore, imagine a kindergarten classroom where more children begin the year ready to learn. The teacher will spend less time managing behavior problems and remediating children who are way behind, and more time teaching the entire group of children. Everyone benefits.
Some have asked whether both of these programs are needed. Could the state cut one program and get just as much benefit by continuing the other program?
Our findings indicate no. Each program generates a unique benefit, and the two programs yield twice as much benefit as one program."
The researchers conclude, "The proposed state budget cuts these early childhood programs by more than 20 percent. Our analyses of the data indicate that the current level of funding for both these programs is well worth the investment."
We need to encourage our elected officials to base their decision on the facts. Please forward this op-ed to your networks!