Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

A new study from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy has found that “North Carolina’s investment in early child care and education programs resulted in higher test scores, less grade retention and fewer special education placements through fifth grade,” according to a Duke University news release.

The study looked at the children who attended the state’s two flagship early childhood programs, Smart Start and More at Four, between 1988 and 2000. Researchers also examined the entire population of children “more than 1 million North Carolina public school students born between 1988 and 2000,” which allowed them to estimate “spillover effects” of the early childhood programs onto the child population at-large (more on “spillover effects” below).

One research query was whether the programs “provided long-lasting benefits for children, or if previously seen positive results diminished by the end of elementary school.”

They found that “the programs’ benefits did not fade with time, as in some early childhood intervention programs. Instead, the positive effects grew or held steady over the years.”


“By the end of fifth grade, children living in counties with average levels of Smart Start and More at Four funding saw improved educational outcomes. These results were equivalent to a gain of more than six months of reading instruction and more than three months of math instruction. The children also had significantly higher mean math and reading scores in grades three, four and five.”

In addition: “Average Smart Start funding was linked to a nearly 10 percent reduction in special education placements in grades three, four and five.”

And: “Average More at Four funding reduced the odds of special education placements by 29 percent in third grade, by 43 percent in fourth grade and by 48 percent in fifth grade.”

Both programs also “reduced the probability of students being held back during elementary school.”

“The findings held regardless of poverty level, suggesting that the programs created an enhanced learning environment for all. One possible explanation for the overall improvement is that teachers did not need to attend to behavior problems or remediation,” the press release notes.

Putting the research in context, the Charlotte Observer adds:

“The new research seems to contradict studies in other states that suggest the benefits of pre-K may fade over time, in particular an often-cited study from Tennessee. But the Duke study’s lead author, Kenneth Dodge, professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience, said comparing pre-K in Tennessee and pre-K in North Carolina is like comparing apples and oranges.”

“Prekindergarten programs around the United States vary in important ways, he said, including teacher credentials, class size, curriculum, eligibility criteria and spending per student. ‘We need to get away from thinking that all pre-K programs are the same,’ Dodge said.”

In other words, higher quality programs produce higher quality outcomes.

In addition, a higher concentration of high-quality programming may be preferable to limited programming sprinkled out evenly across a region or state. As the study concludes, “the sustained effects suggest that it may be more beneficial to saturate a community with an early childhood program than to distribute limited resources across many communities at a level that is below a threshold of enduring impact.”

How much did North Carolina’s pre-K programs cost?

The study found that “the state’s investment in both programs totaled an average of $2,200 per child during the 13-year study period,” according to the Duke press release. But there’s an important caveat. In an email to us, study author Kenneth Dodge clarified that this cost figure refers to the total state spending divided by the young child population — not just those children enrolled in the program (about 25% of the total population). This study design allowed researchers to estimate “spillover” effects – the program’s ongoing impact on peers who did not participate in the interventions, an important addition to the research literature on the benefits of pre-K.

Cheering for pre-K’s outcomes and the low price, the News & Observer’s editorial page says, “That’s a bargain by any definition. And it underlines the need for the state to ensure that all at-risk youngsters have access to these programs, which would take more of an investment from the General Assembly. This kind of productive, and proven effort ought to be non-partisan, something all elected officials can stand behind and support.”

The Observer concludes:

“The Duke researchers are now studying whether the positive effects persist into middle school. The team aims to follow the students’ progress through high school and beyond.

“ ‘I am confident that these findings support the continuation and expansion of both of these programs in North Carolina,’ Dodge said. ‘But we need to continue to evaluate whether the programs continue to have a positive impact on these children, because the context changes. We’ve got to make sure the quality remains high.’ ”

And advocates have to make sure that North Carolina’s high quality becomes a widely shared, national example of getting pre-K right.