Recent results of the biannual National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show that Minnesota students continue to be among the most proficient in the country at reading and math. As a Kindergarten teacher in Minneapolis, I am proud of all our students and recognize the role I play in providing a strong foundation for them to be successful in subsequent grades.
It’s clear that a strong academic foundation in the early grades is a key ingredient to a child’s success in school. That’s why I am so concerned about the number of kindergarten students who entered my class this year already behind grade-level. Moreover, all Minnesotans should be concerned that, absent a strong push to expand access to quality pre-K for all our children, our state will likely lose our standing among the nation’s best in student achievement.
After working as an early childhood teacher for two years in Las Vegas, I moved home to Minnesota to continue pushing for quality early childhood education. After research into my students’ education background it was clear that having had a quality Pre-K experience was positively correlated with the child’s kindergarten proficiency. Those students who have been exposed to school settings surpass their peers in direct instruction and independent work time. Students who have had quality pre-K have built up confidence in school, and are eager to learn more. While students who have never before been in such environments are confused by classroom rules, procedures and objectives.
To provide some context, the kindergarten reading assessment used in my school requires incoming students to master writing their first name, naming 16 letters, rhyming, and knowing concepts of print to be considered kindergarten-ready. Students who have not mastered these basic skills are considered unprepared for kindergarten. 2012 data indicated that only 64 percent of the third-grade students in Minneapolis were proficient readers. For these students, their uphill battle to catch up to”grade level” begins the first day of kindergarten. By gaining access to high-quality early education, students can by and large avoid this struggle, and all could be on nearly equal footing on their first day of school.
Other states and the U.S. Congress have already recognized the importance of pre-K, and are moving to close the gap. In New York City, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a signature initiative of his campaign; following his victory, Governor Andrew Cuomo and key members of the New York State Legislature have indicated their support for the plan. At the federal level, just last week,Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced the “Strong Start for America’s Children Act” to expand access to high-quality pre-K programs for children from birth to age five. Representatives George Miller of California and Richard Hanna of New York have introduced similar legislation in the House.
Although access to quality pre-K is crucial, the parents in our city must also understand the programs available to them and be able to access them with as few barriers as possible. Too often, parents and adults in our community are confronted with a complex and burdensome enrollment process that is convoluted and difficult to navigate. The limited availability of spots for subsidized programs like Head Start forceparents to explore a variety of unsubsidized providers that differ in funding streams and enrollment allocations. More “hub” programs that provide parents with centralized data about all of their options would go a long way towards helping them navigate these choices.
Minneapolis has taken some steps in the direction of providing families with more options for their young children. Campaigns such as MinneMinds have laid the foundation to expand pre-K. Mayor-Elect Betsy Hodges’ cradle-to-K initiative aims to close opportunity gaps before they begin. While this is an important step in the right direction, we need even more people in positions of influence to recognize that the construction of a child’s academic foundation begins before they set foot in a kindergarten classroom.
It is time to advocate for all children, and to provide equal opportunities for education regardless of a child’s socioeconomic background. Until we solidify access to quality pre-K for all families, the divide in kindergarten will persist. Resources need to be dedicated to ensuring that all children spend those years in high-quality classrooms focused on ensuring all students are kindergarten-ready. If we fail to do so, Minnesota’s historically exceptional education system could be in danger of being surpassed. The stakes are high for Minnesota’s families and students.