Pre-Maternal Disappearance and Perfect Balance in North Carolina

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After a Tennessee study found long-term negative academic and behavioral outcomes for pre-K participants, the results sent ripples through North Carolina’s political conversation.

Some have questioned whether NC Pre-K, the state preschool program for 4-year-olds in low-income families and other eligibility categories, is worth maintaining and expanding. In recent years, the program has reached around half of eligible children, or a quarter of all 4-year-olds – excluding a sharp drop in attendance during the pandemic.

This week, Senator Michael Lee, R-New Hanover and SAS CEO Jim Goodnight defended the program in an editorial in The News & Observer. They pointed to research that shows the academic and social benefits of NC Pre-K last through college.

“Some suggest we reconsider whether NC Pre-K should continue at all,” Lee and Goodnight wrote. “In North Carolina, the data clearly indicates that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.”

Early childhood researchers largely agree. They say our political conversations shouldn’t focus on whether the state should provide the pre-K, but on How? ‘Or’ What.

What skills are fading?

The positive effects of pre-kindergarten fading over time or, in the case of the Tennessee study, pre-kindergarten attendance leading to poorer student outcomes, led a group of researchers, including Peg Burchinal, a professor in the School of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia. development, wondering why.

Could it be that programs with these results are not focusing on the right skills? Could it be that early elementary experiences bother pre-kindergarten participants more than non-participants? Is the fainting due to an overlap of skills taught in kindergarten with those in pre-kindergarten?

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Burchinal studied North Carolina pre-kindergarten attendees and non-attendees in rural Southeast North Carolina in a 2021 study and found that by the end of kindergarten, some gains pre-kindergarten faded more than others. Students’ gains in reading had all but disappeared by the spring of their kindergarten year, for example. Their math and language gains had declined slightly. But their gains in executive functioning had increased.

The researchers therefore lean towards the “trifecta” hypothesis to explain fading: “that long-term impacts only occur when pre-K programs target skills that uniquely support learning and development. later”, the paper says.

The researchers argue that more abstract skills, such as language and executive functioning (like adaptive thinking and self-regulation), are less likely to lead to a fade and are more developmentally appropriate.

Why?

The researchers then looked at classroom practices to determine which seemed to promote the least fainting. The study found that 35% of children’s pre-K experiences were spent in group activities, 25% in literacy instruction, 15% in math, and 4% in “complex teacher discussions.” “.

Burchinal’s main conclusion? “Teaching skills by rote in pre-K is inefficient,” she said during a lecture by the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy Tuesday. The study found that large group teaching was the strongest negative predictor of skills such as language, decoding, math, and inhibitory control and attention.

If abstract skills are the goal, Burchinal said, it’s important to limit large group instruction to 10 minutes or less and increase “complex teacher talk” in small groups or between the teacher. and children.

Find the right balance

But a high-quality curriculum may not need to choose between academic and abstract skills, said Sandra Soliday Hong, an advanced researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

“It’s not this false dichotomy between academics and gaming,” Hong said in an interview with EdNC.

The question of the most effective pre-kindergarten orientation is particularly relevant to North Carolina classrooms this year, as state-mandated training unfolds, aimed at improving knowledge and practice. of teaching children to read among pre-kindergarten through fifth grade teachers. In Burchinal’s study, literacy instruction was the most common academic goal in pre-kindergarten classrooms.

“I asked if that time could be used more productively to try to promote some of these more abstract skills that don’t seem to be promoted as well once kids get to school,” Burchinal said.

Still, some rote literacy classes are important for students who might have more difficulty learning to read, Hong said.

“Estimates for children likely to have trouble learning to read are between 11 and 20 percent, and these children therefore need direct rote instruction, and especially during the period when the neural architecture around letter-sound correspondence is constructed by their peers,” Hong said. “They need that support to be able to grow with their peers neurologically, so we might be leaving behind two to four kids in each class if we don’t.”

Hong said crossfading shouldn’t be a big concern for NC Pre-K, but there’s room for improvement when it comes to teaching developmentally appropriate content — especially increasing interactions. child-teacher in a research-backed way.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “And that reflects the field in general.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.

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