The first eight years of a child’s life are a critical time that build the foundation for future learning. In fact, research shows that reading proficiently by the end of third grade predicts a child’s later academic achievement and career success.
In North Carolina, a bold initiative aims to have all children reading on grade-level by the end of third grade, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Called NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading, it began in 2015 with the premise that reaching this goal takes a range of health, education and family supports.
Hundreds of pediatricians, funders, family service providers, researchers and business leaders have contributed to Pathways’ work. The Duke Endowment has supported the initiative through $515,000 in grants. The first grant, in 2016, helped Pathways launch. More recently, a $185,000 award in 2018 is helping Pathways gather more data about early childhood to guide the next steps toward progress.
Learn more below.
1. On the Path
Pathways is an initiative of the NC Early Childhood Foundation in collaboration with NC Child, The North Carolina Partnership for Children and BEST NC. The idea is that achieving grade-level reading is possible for all children if we ensure that they have:
- Health and development on track from birth
- Supportive and supported families and communities
- High-quality birth-through-age-8 learning environments, with regular attendance
Those three goals shape the work. “The conversation can’t stop at, ‘Was that second-grade teacher good?’ It needs to be about a range of measures such as babies being born with a healthy birth weight, parents having health insurance, and families having books to read at home,” says Muffy Grant, executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation.
From the beginning, Pathways’ vision was to build on North Carolina’s history of innovation and success and develop a coordinated approach for policies and practices. Its partners would work across disciplines, sectors and political differences. On various teams – data, learning and design – they’d create tools to spur public investment in effective early childhood interventions and inform the way toward better outcomes.
2. The Early Work
Pathways evolved through three phases:
- In Phase I, 30 experts on the data action team identified birth-through-age-8, “whole child” measures that research shows can move the needle on third grade reading proficiency. The team developed the Pathways Measures of Success Framework. To be included, the measures needed to be research-based, actionable, impactful and easily communicated, and they needed to reduce gaps and inequities. If North Carolina makes progress on these measures, the idea is that third grade reading outcomes will improve.
- In Phase II, learning teams looked at North Carolina data and recommended which measures to prioritize based on questions of need (how is the state doing) and equity (how are specific groups of children doing).
- In Phase III, design teams created the Pathways Action Framework to help the state align around policy and strategies. It outlines more than 40 priorities to support children’s social-emotional health, ensure high-quality learning environments, and create the conditions for every child to be in school every day.
3. The Products
The Pathways Data Dashboard provides North Carolina data broken down (when possible) by county, race and ethnicity, income and age, which helps answer questions about how different populations of children are faring.
For the three goals mentioned earlier – health and development on track from birth; supportive and supported families and communities; high-quality birth-through-age-8 learning environments, with regular attendance – there are data points on:
- Measures of success, which help to quantify progress toward a goal and are tied to grade-level reading by the end of third grade (such as percentage of parents reporting their children’s health is excellent/good and days per week that families read to their children)
- Influencer measures, which move, or influence, the measures of success and have research connecting them to early literacy (such as percentage of young children living in food insecure households and percentage who have seen a dentist in the past year)
The dashboard shows reading scores in the state, along with community conditions that influence child outcomes such as housing stability, environmental health, and safe and economically-viable neighborhoods.
Coming soon is a Pathways Action Map designed to drive action where it’s most needed. This online tool will provide a snapshot of innovation across the state – and where it’s lacking.
4. A Racial Equity Lens
Research shows significant disparities in opportunities based on race and ethnicity, income, geography and age. Due to systemic inequities, Black, Latino and Native American fourth graders are less likely to be reading proficiently than their white peers. Fifty-two percent of white children meet this benchmark, while only 22 percent of Black and 22 percent of Latino children do.
Pathways uses a racial equity lens by:
- Disaggregating data to uncover the racial and other disparities in outcomes among groups of children
- Understanding the root causes of those disparities, including inequities built into our systems
- Ensuring that people of color and white people work together to make decisions about what to prioritize and how
- Encouraging and supporting partner organizations and agencies to lead with a racial equity lens
- Convening organizations so they can learn together, support each other, and partner to advance racial equity work for young children
Pathways says its impact is “grounded in data and realized in policy.”
- The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services used the Measures of Success Framework to create the NC Early Childhood Action Plan
- Local Smart Start partnerships and Campaign for Grade-Level Reading communities are using the Measures of Success and Action frameworks in their work
- The N.C. General Assembly highlighted Pathways in the 2016 and 2017 budgets when it passed provisions calling for greater birth-to-age-8 coordination across agencies and organizations
- The two frameworks have furthered the work of several early childhood initiatives in the state, including the Governor’s Commission for Sound, Basic Education; the myFutureNC Commission; and the Birth through Third Grade Interagency Council
As the work continues in North Carolina, leaders believe Pathways can be a model for other states that want to commit to changing outcomes for young children and their families.
6. Next Steps
Pathways has found that although North Carolina collects high-quality data on some measures, data points are poor or nonexistent on others. In some places on the data dashboard, for example, statistics are displayed solely for white children because that’s the only group large enough for a sub-sample, says Mandy Ableidinger, deputy director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation.
Improving data collection and filling these gaps is a goal.
“Early childhood data are more important than ever as North Carolina addresses the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continues to reckon with structural racism and social injustice,” Ableidinger wrote in a piece for EdNC. “Advocates, policymakers, and child and family service providers need to know how young children and families — particularly those facing the most barriers to opportunity — are doing, and how our systems are doing in serving them.”
Get Ready Guilford
The Duke Endowment is investing in Pathways to promote learning in the field and to bolster our “place-based” efforts that are focused on early childhood. In Guilford County, N.C., for example, the Endowment is spearheading the Get Ready Guilford Initiative, a multi-year endeavor to give every child in the community a better chance at success in school and life.
Working with Ready for School, Ready for Life, a leading early childhood organization, the goal is to improve individual and population-level outcomes among 55,000 children, prenatal through age 8, in five areas: planned and well-timed pregnancies; healthy births; on-track development for infants, toddlers and preschoolers; school readiness at kindergarten; and success by third grade.Phase I of Get Ready Guilford is focused on families and children prenatal to age 3. First year highlights have included designing a community-wide case management system and expanding access to the three evidence-based programs that anchor the initiative: Nurse-Family Partnership, Guilford Family Connects and HealthySteps. Beginning in 2022, a planned Phase II will expand services to ages 3 to 5, while laying the groundwork for serving children along the entire developmental continuum. Leaders expect the work to span a decade.
Director, Special Initiatives