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Raising Achievement Levels within School Districts with High Poverty

By Marsha Basloe, President of CCSA

In May, the Program Evaluation Division[1] (PED) within the North Carolina General Assembly released a new report, “North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts.”[2]

PED was right – addressing the achievement gap requires much more attention to a child’s earliest years. While Pre-K expansion was recommended, research points to the birth to age 3 period of a child’s life as the time when the largest impact on a child’s development is possible. This period of early childhood must also be taken into account as we plan for the future for all NC families.

PED was charged with reviewing school districts nationwide with high poverty rates and at least average achievement by students to see if there were common strategies that could be used within North Carolina school districts. The project addressed three research questions,[3]

  1. What are the characteristics of school districts that have high percentages of economically disadvantaged students yet demonstrate high academic performance?
  2. What policies or practices are high-achieving disadvantaged districts implementing that may contribute to student performance?
  3. What policies or practices could North Carolina implement in order to improve performance in districts with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students?

The results were sobering. PED found that local school districts throughout the country struggled in attaining grade level or better student performance. In fact, PED identified only 5% of predominantly economically disadvantaged school districts that also had grade level or better student performance over a 7-year period.[4] Within North Carolina, 45 of 115 school districts were identified as predominantly economically disadvantaged, which is about 39% of North Carolina school districts.  Of those 45 school districts, only 7 (about 16%) met the bar of student performance at grade level (or above).[5]  While higher than the national average, 16% is nothing to boast about.

What PED found was that within economically disadvantaged school districts where students are performing well (at grade level or above), third grade is an important marker. Student growth occurs after 3rd grade but that efforts to address student competencies before grade 3 are most important in reducing the achievement gap.[6]

PED conducted interviews within 12 economically disadvantaged school districts (comparable to school districts within North Carolina) with grade level (or above) student performance to see if there were any common strategies that led to higher student outcomes. One of the factors that the 12 school districts had in common was a significant investment in public pre-kindergarten (pre-K).  Pre-K in two of the school districts (Durant Independent School District in Oklahoma and Steubenville City Schools in Ohio) target both three- and four-year-old children for enrollment. Four of the five North Carolina counties in which case study districts were located had 75% or more of eligible children participating in NC Pre-K.

However, PED notes that current funding enables only 47% of low-income eligible children statewide to participate in NC Pre-K.[7]

The PED report makes two recommendations.

Recommendation #1.  The General Assembly should require low-performing school districts to include an early childhood improvement plan as a component of their required plans for improvement.[8]  PED calls for the development of specific strategies aimed at boosting achievement from pre-K to 3rd grade and lists expanding pre-K, improving pre-K quality, ensuring alignment of pre-K curricula with elementary school curricula, developing transition plans, providing professional development that focuses on early learning and providing instructional coaching focused on pre-kK through 3rd grade.

Recommendation #2. The General Assembly should require an assessment of early childhood learning as part of the Department of Public Instruction’s comprehensive needs assessment process for districts.[9]

While those of us who have worked in the early childhood education field are glad to see the recommendations related to pre-K, and agree the NC Pre-K program should be fully-funded so all eligible children have an opportunity to participate, children are not born at age four.

Research shows that pre-K makes a difference in a child’s school readiness, particularly for low-income children. However, that same research also notes that a child’s gains in pre-K are directly related to his or her prior experiences before pre-K.[10]  

Neuroscience research shows that a child’s earliest years, from birth to age three, play a critical role in the development of brain wiring that lays a foundation for all future learning.[11]  In the first years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed every second.[12] 

Source: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

This wiring frames the architecture upon which all future abilities are built. While people learn throughout their lives, a child’s earliest years are critical because they set the foundation. Genes and experiences help shape a young child’s brain development,[13] which begin long before a child enters pre-K.  And, remediation strategies are much more difficult as children (and adults) age.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest data, throughout North Carolina:

  • 356,007 children are under age three[14]
  • 465,783 children are under age six who also have working parents (young children residing in two-parent families where both parents work or in a single-parent family where the head of household works)[15]

Young children with working mothers are in child care every week for about 36 hours according to the Census Bureau.[16]  Most of these children are not age four; they are not in pre-K. This is why any directive to the General Assembly to address the achievement gap, which rightly calls for addressing the early childhood landscape, has to not only focus on access to pre-K but also must focus on access to high-quality child care and the early childhood workforce that cares for our youngest children.

Child Care Services Association works locally with Think Babies™ NC and the leadership team as well as with national organizations on the importance of the prenatal to three years through. The Pritzker Children’s Initiative is dedicated to building a promising future for our country by focusing investment and support nationally in children at the earliest stages of life, particularly from birth to age three. Zero to Three and Child Trends just released the State of Babies Yearbook. North Carolina’s profile can be found here.

We applaud PED’s call for low performing school districts to include an early childhood improvement plan and an assessment of early learning opportunities as part of district comprehensive needs assessments. However, early learning is not limited to pre-K settings. High-quality child care programs are important early learning settings at all ages. Any needs assessment and early childhood improvement plans that are derived from such a landscape review must include our youngest children. Child development, school readiness and reducing the achievement gap depend on it.


[1] The Program Evaluation Division (PED) is a central, non-partisan unit of the Legislative Services Commission of the North Carolina General Assembly that assists the General Assembly in fulfilling its responsibility to oversee government functions.
[2] North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts, Final Report of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Report #2019-06, May 20, 2019.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] National Institute of Early Education Research, Barriers to Expansion of NC Pre-K: Problems and Potential Solutions, 2018.      
[8] North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts, Final Report of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Report #2019-06, May 20, 2019.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Foundation for Child Development, Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Christina Weiland, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margaret R. Burchinal, Linda M. Espinosa, William T. Gormley, Jens Ludwig, Katherine A. Magnuson, Deborah Phillips, Martha J. Zaslow. (2013).
[11] Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. The Science of Early Childhood Development.
[12] Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. Brain Architecture.
[13] Ibid.
[14] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B09001, 2017 American Community Survey, 1 year estimates.
[15] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B23008, 2017 American Community Survey, 1 year estimates.
[16] U.S. Census Bureau, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011, released April 2013.

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