SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Education Efforts Poorly Evaluated
Each year, hundreds of millions of state dollars are spent on preschool and child-care programs in North Carolina.
And each year, very little assessment takes place showing exactly what taxpayers are getting for their dollar.
The Charlotte Observer recently reported that Bright Beginnings, an innovative pre-kindergarten program begun a decade ago by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has done little in recent years to examine whether kids going through the program perform better academically than similar children who do not.
The newspaper noted that the initial group of children who went through the program are now freshmen in high school. Some initial testing several years ago showed gains in kindergarten, but the advantages seemed to diminish later in elementary school.
Then, the school system stopped following the students.
Bright Beginnings costs $23 million a year. It served as a model for Gov. Mike Easley's More at Four preschool for 4-year-olds. The state program now costs $196 million.
Unlike Bright Beginnings, the state is following the effects of More at Four. The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducts an evaluation each year examining the children's progress both in the pre-school and in kindergarten.
But there's no attempt to study their performance against a control group that hasn't gone through the program. Apparently researchers believe creating a meaningful control group is difficult or impossible.
Taxpayers spend even more on North Carolina's landmark child care and early education initiative, Smart Start. In 2007, the program received $205 million in state funding.
Until 2003, the Graham Center evaluated its effectiveness as well. But that year, the studies stopped.
Begun by former Gov. Jim Hunt in 1993, Smart Start has a lot of different aims. It provides subsidized child care intended to better prepare children both physically and mentally to enter school.
The care includes health screenings. And the subsidies help parents who might otherwise not be able to afford child care move into the work force.
Still, a major point of Smart Start is also improving readiness for school by improving the quality of day care.
The earlier Graham Center studies indicated correlations between high-quality Smart Start centers and children's mastery of skills as they entered kindergarten.
Even so, that initial group of Smart Start attendees have now gone through high school. How hard would it be to examine how well they performed through their school years compared to peers from similar socio-economic backgrounds?
Nearly two decades ago, I heard a motivational speaker tell a group of teachers, "Love your children more than your schools." What he meant was, remember that your methods and your programs aren't ends in themselves. The kids and their success are the ends.
Bright Beginnings, More at Four and Smart Start may well be having their intended effects. No one should be afraid to find out, to the degree possible, exactly how well each is meeting its goals.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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