Early childhood ed key to reading skills

We don’t need to go all-in at once

How can a state be considered tops in the country in public education when more than 50 percent of its fourth graders cannot read proficiently? The easy answer is because all other states are worse. The thoughtful answer is that not enough is being done to ensure more children can read capably and be positioned to succeed.

Massachusetts ranked first in the country in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count Profile,” a national scorecard of how individual states are managing issues affecting children. We were first in an overall ranking of four categories, including first in education and second in health, a category that includes children without health insurance and teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.

Our standing is a tribute to the investment in time and money that state and federal government, the education community, and nonprofit groups have made to improve the lives of children. But the reality is that we still have gaps that keep children from reaching their full potential. According to the Kids Count report, 53 percent of our fourth graders are not proficient in reading. That is far better than the 66 percent national average, but it is still alarming. Reading proficiency by the end of the third grade is an indicator of a student’s likelihood to drop out of school.

The best way to improve reading proficiency in Massachusetts is to develop a statewide, holistic strategy to provide access to high quality early childhood education and relevant supports for families. Such an approach could speak to the significant gaps that universal preschool does not address in the first three years of a child’s life, as well as ensure the sustainability of such an approach by connecting families with the resources they need to create a healthy, stable environment for their young children.

Thus far, our state’s leaders have been unwilling to invest the resources it will take to provide universal access to early education programs for every child from birth through age five, regardless of income. They have been inhibited by the estimated price tag of more than $1 billion. This, in spite of studies that have shown that for every $1 we invest in early education, we save at least $7 in long-term costs associated with high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, incarceration, and other social costs.

But we don’t have to “go all-in” at once. We can begin with a modest investment of $150 million to remove the waitlist and expand early education in Boston and our Gateway Cities. More than 17,000 low-income children from birth through age five are currently shut out of programs in these communities because of shortfalls in funding. More than a budgetary and economic issue, this is a moral and civil rights issue – these underprivileged children deserve the same advantages as upper-income, suburban families, who can afford high-quality early education programs.

In May, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced the formation of a Universal Pre-Kindergarten Advisory Committee to create a plan to double the enrollment of four-year-olds in full-day pre-kindergarten programs by 2018. This is an excellent start, but to be truly effective we must also address the urgent developmental needs of children from birth through age three, the period in which 85 percent of our brains are developed. It’s critical that we design proper development strategies for high quality care and education during those early years.

We cannot overstate the impact early learning experiences have on a child’s success later in life. Children in low-income neighborhoods start kindergarten 60 percent behind their peers from more affluent communities. However, researchers at the University of North Carolina found that low-income children who enrolled in quality pre-school programs as infants or toddlers entered kindergarten with the same skills as their middle-income peers.

Furthermore, numerous previous studies found that access to high-quality early education and care leads to lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy, higher rates of high school graduation and academic achievement and higher levels of lifetime workforce productivity.

The gap can be further narrowed by connecting families to the supports they need in order to create a healthy, stable environment for their children. These resources can range from parent nurturing support to financial literacy training to healthy nutrition workshops. The goal of providing access to these resources is to empower parents and to help them develop a sense of agency to advocate for themselves and their families.

The Nurtury Learning Lab, a new center opened inside the Bromley-Heath public housing development in Jamaica Plain in June, is an example of this kind of holistic approach. It provides an array of educational and family support services to create a campus of care and education for children and parents. These include infant and toddler, preschool and afterschool programs for children up to age 8; parenting workshops; and health and nutrition programs for low-income families. The 1,800 children and adults who live in Bromley-Heath, as well as the residents of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, will have access to the programs. Nurtury is developing partnerships with higher education institutions such as Boston University and Wheelock College to share expertise and enable relevant research.

Next year, Massachusetts will have a new governor and the Legislature will begin looking at funding priorities in a new state budget. This will be the time to fulfill a promise to early childhood education that began with the creation of the Early Education and Care Department and the Universal Pre-K Pilot Grant program that was approved in 2007. Since peaking at $10.9 million in fiscal 2009, UPK has slipped to $7.5 million in annual funding in the state budget. About 93 percent of the money the state spends on early care and education is federal money. Most other states in the country match more of their own dollars for early care and education spending.

If we are to ensure that more than 47 percent of our third graders can read proficiently and that we will be able to produce workers with the required skills for a modern economy, this is the year for us to make a real investment in early care and education.

Meet the Author
Massachusetts has been a national leader in education reform. Yet we’re not giving all of our children the opportunity to succeed through perhaps the most promising reform available – early childhood education. We know “Kids Count” in Massachusetts. Now, let’s prove it.

Wayne Ysaguirre is the president and chief executive of Nurtury, which provides early care and education programs for more than 1,300 low-income children in Greater Boston and operates The Nurtury Learning Lab, a new early childhood education and family support center in Jamaica Plain.