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FPG Launches Comprehensive Study of Early Learning in Rural NC

FPG Launches Comprehensive Study of Early Learning in Rural NC

January 19, 2016

UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) will study the early learning experiences of rural children in North Carolina from pre-kindergarten through third grade to identify policies and practices that promote school success. The new study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, builds on FPG’s work in rural NC. 

The FPG study will be a key component of the new Early Learning Network developed by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The network will look at systems-level policies and practices, teacher-child interactions and classroom practices, and child and family characteristics to identify effective policies and practices for early education.

“This is an exciting opportunity to look at the quality of early learning from new perspectives,” said FPG senior scientist Margaret Burchinal, principal investigator of the study. “It’s one of few studies, if not the first, that will follow children from pre-K into elementary school and gather enough data, from enough different sources, to tell us what we can do to promote academic success for vulnerable children.”

“As we increase access to early education, we need high-quality research to show us the most effective ways to prepare children for success in elementary school and beyond,” said Acting Secretary of Education John King in the announcement from IES. “The Early Learning Network will develop important information and tools that will help policymakers and practitioners improve preschool and elementary school teaching and learning across the country.”

Burchinal, a veteran of FPG’s Abecedarian Project and many other seminal studies of early education, will rely on an experienced team with established ties in North Carolina. Joining her is co-principal investigator Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, who for several years has headed FPG’s annual evaluations of the state’s pre-kindergarten program.

“We know from our previous research that NC Pre-K benefits children academically,” said Peisner-Feinberg, who directs FPG’s National Pre-K and Early Learning Evaluation Center. “This study will help us understand how to extend those positive outcomes through the early elementary grades.”

FPG fellow Lynne Vernon-Feagans, principal investigator of the long-running Family Life Project in rural North Carolina counties, will oversee the study’s exploration of teacher-child interactions.

“Very few studies have focused on rural America, where geographic isolation, poverty, and fewer federal dollars to fund education have been barriers to many children’s success in school,” said Vernon Feagans. “This study will be critical in better understanding how pre-K environments, especially those for children living in poverty, may create the context for success for many rural children. Competent and caring teachers who foster high-quality positive interactions with children are critical to the success of young children living in poverty.

Lora Cohen-Vogel, the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Policy and Education Reform at the UNC School of Education, will lead the study’s integral look at policy, an often understudied area in early childhood education. 

“We need to understand state and local policies as they relate to the early educational experiences of rural children in North Carolina,” said Cohen-Vogel. “Policymakers are concerned about program effectiveness and how their early childhood investments can lead to positive, long-term effects for kids. We will help them get answers.”

Rounding out Burchinal’s team is a formidable collection of FPG experts, including  investigator Ximena Franco, who will study English-Spanish dual-language learners; fellow Claire Baker, who will look at parental involvement and the role of African American fathers in promoting academic success; investigator Mary Bratsch-Hines, who will serve as project director; and FPG post-doc Irina Mokrova, who will contribute statistical analyses.

In addition to Burchinal’s team, the new IES Early Learning Network comprises researchers from a social policy nonprofit and four universities, which she called “a first-rate group.”

Thomas W. Brock, Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at IES, said the Early Learning Network would lead to crucial advances.

“The idea is for the network teams to develop a deeper understanding of problems and solutions surrounding the issue,” Brock said, “and then share what they have learned with policymakers and practitioners to improve teaching and learning for all students.”

Margaret Burchinal, FPG Senior Scientist
Director, FPG’s Data Management and Analysis Core
Professor, UNC Department of Psychology

Read the IES announcement.