A new peer-reviewed study by Duke researchers in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management shows that North Carolina's Smart Start and More at Four (now the NC Pre-Kindergarten) pre-school programs substantially improve third-graders' reading and math test scores.
The researchers linked third-graders' scores on standardized Spring reading and math tests to the counties where those third-graders were pre-schoolers. They then calculated county averages of the per-child spending on the Smart Start and More at Four programs for the years that each child was growing up.
The researchers focused on the years when both programs were being ramped up and found that spending on both programs was significantly and substantially positively associated with math and reading scores. The results held even in complex multivariate models that also accounted for the children's personal and family characteristics, county-specific effects, and time-effects.
The research is important in establishing the effectiveness of both programs. In particular, it shows that both programs have impacts that reach several years into elementary school.
However, it also shows the consequences of recent actions by Republican General Assemblies to slash these programs. In 2011, permanent state funding for Smart Start was cut by one-fifth, and one-time budget cuts along with state cuts to local governments reduced spending further. That same 2011 budget also sharply cut the NCPK program. Although Gov. Perdue replaced some of those funds through temporary allocations, that relief was not maintained in the 2013-5 budget.
The consequences will appear later this decade when the current cohort of pre-schoolers reach third grade with weaker reading and math skills.
And as that noted educational authority, Speaker Thom Tillis, has pointed out, "Students who can read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to graduate than those who cannot."
So the decade that follows isn't looking so good either.