The worth of children's programs

On May 19, state Sen. Phil Berger said that even in these difficult economic times, we need to make sure all North Carolina children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Last week, Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. upped the ante on this goal by announcing a special hearing related to the Leandro legal case. The judge wants to make sure that legislators meet the educational needs of North Carolina's children as required by that case.

Thank you, Senator Berger and Judge Manning. But how do we get there?

We recognize that policymakers may differ legitimately in the goals and values they have for the people they serve. One person might support a goal of helping children learn to read, while another supports a goal of arts education. In this case, however, citizens and policymakers, including Senate leader Berger and Manning, the judge who oversees the long-running education case, all seem to agree that children's educational success must remain paramount.

Policymakers may also differ in the strategies they propose to achieve common goals. Here is where research scientists like ourselves can be helpful in sorting out the effectiveness of strategies that have been implemented to achieve common goals.

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. The Smart Start initiative provides funds for high-quality child care and services supporting health, cognitive and social development from birth to age 5. It began in the early 1990s in certain counties and now serves children statewide. The More at Four Program provides funds for high-quality preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds in the year prior to kindergarten. It began as a pilot program in the early 2000s and now serves every county.

Do these programs work? Have they made our children better off academically?

Based on our and colleague Clara Muschkin's ongoing examination of these programs, the answer is yes.

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, and fulfills the goals that Berger has urged and Manning has decreed.

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 current funding level for these programs is about $1,250 per 4-year-old child (for all 4-year-olds in a community, not just those who participate in the program) for one year of More at Four, and another $1,250 per child for Smart Start (that is, $250 per child per year for each of five years from birth to age 5).

Some say that other strategies could reach the same goals. Although that is a plausible idea, it is unproven. We know that these programs help us reach the goals that Berger and Manning have promoted: Smart Start and More at Four improve third-grade academic performance for all children, including at-risk children.

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.

Kenneth A. Dodge and Helen F. Ladd are professors at the Center for Child and Family Policy and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. This commentary was originally published in The News and Observer.