Opinion: Daily Journal

Not So Bright Beginnings

RALEIGH – While lots of folks in the state capital were transfixed by the big story that never happened – the promised vote on a lottery bill that Speaker Jim Black yanked back at the last minute for lack of support – another news item of great importance popped up in the state’s largest city.

In recent years, Charlotte has become a major focus of attention as North Carolina seeks to improve educational achievement and reduce the performance gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks, Hispanics, and Indians on the other. In addition to the high-profile busing case that came to a head last year, Charlotte embarked on a much-ballyhooed experiment in government-designed and funded preschool programs for at-risk youth. Known as Bright Beginnings, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools initiative involved both school-based and private center-based programs and cost a good chunk of the taxpayers’ change.

Bright Beginnings also claimed to be a set above the average Smart Start program, in that the former was more clearly focused on academic content and was designed to be evaluated annually as participating children entered the CMS system. Based on early evidence that preschoolers were benefiting from the extra attention, some precipitously claimed that Bright Beginnings was a proven model – including Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who cited in the program in his dubious ruling that North Carolina’s constitution mandated the provision of an early-childhood program for every at-risk child in the state.

Yesterday, the school system made public the latest test results for Bright Beginnings, and it’s safe to say that the political luster is starting to rub off. While some of the results weren’t bad – for example, Bright Beginnings had slightly higher math scores and were somewhat more likely than their disadvantaged peers to score in the highest performance level – the bulk of the data shows that the program has, so far, failed to escape the problems inherent in preschool intervention.

The test scores are for third-graders who were and were not in Bright Beginnings in 1997-98. This is significant because third grade is traditionally the time that the benefits of early-childhood invention, from Head Start programs to those of more recent vintage, tend to “fade out” as participating students revert to the performance of their disadvantaged, nonparticipating peers.

With Bright Beginnings, the numbers are actually worse than that. There is no difference in reading scores for all students, and as I noted the math differential is tiny. More importantly, for those groups deemed mostly likely to benefit from the intervention – black students and the poor – there is more evidence of a negative effect of Bright Beginnings on student performance than there is of a positive effect.

As reported by The Charlotte Observer (see http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/local/3632518.htm), among the 881 black students in the original prekindergarten group, 66.7 percent performed at or above grade level on the reading exam, compared with 71 percent of their eligible peers, and 69 percent for all other black third-graders. Similarly, among the 781 original Bright Beginnings students eligible for the government lunch program, 65.8 percent performed at or above grade level in reading, compared with 68.3 percent of the eligible nonparticipants. Furthermore, a total of 84 percent of CMS students performed at or above grade level, so the achievement gap remains large.

Even if Bright Beginnings has no real academic benefits, you would expect the participants to outscore nonparticipants somewhat, simply because the former group is more likely to have caring and motivated parents (participation was not through random selection). The fact that the scores came out the way they did is not conclusive evidence that the program is a failure, and as I noted there were a few glimmers of good news here and there. But it certainly looks like the “fade out” pattern persists in Bright Beginnings as it does in so many other programs, undercutting all the hype surrounding the program and the case for taxpayer subsidy.