Would North Carolina retain more than half of its third-graders the equivalent of all students in Durham, Orange, Chatham and Lee County schools at a price tag of more than half of a billion dollars?
Probably not, but its a reasonable question. Last week the state released test scores from the 2012-13 school year that showed close to 55 percent of North Carolina students were not proficient in reading at the end of third grade. The results coincide with a new state law that will go into effect for the current school year known as Read to Achieve. It requires that students be retained in third grade if they fail to demonstrate reading proficiency.
Similar laws have been enacted in several states as policymakers react to years of low test scores combined with research that shows reading proficiency by third grade is a predictor of academic achievement, high school graduation and career success. With student performance falling, the achievement gap growing and high stakes testing in place, it is time to call the question: Why are so many of our children struggling and what can be done about it?
There is no one answer, but we can start by building on what we have done right in our state and invest in policies and programs that recognize that education is a cumulative process, and that birth to age 8 represents a critical developmental period during which children must have good health, strong families and high quality learning experiences to be most successful in school and life. Brains are built, not born, according to neuroscientist Dr. Jack Schonkoff. Childrens earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired. And because brains are built from the bottom up, much like a house, the first eight years set the foundation for all of the years that follow.
With brain science providing new understanding about how children learn, there has been a national effort to translate the research into practical policies that make a difference for children. A report released last month by the National Governors Association offers actions governors and state policymakers can take to ensure that all children are reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
A Governors Guide to Early Literacy: Getting all Students Reading by Third Grade emphasizes that starting at kindergarten is too late. It recommends multiple actions, including creating standards and professional development opportunities that support quality teachers and effective teaching for all children across schools and early childhood settings. The report also notes that schools alone cannot solve the problem. Childrens academic success requires engaged communities supporting parents as full partners in the success of their children.
North Carolina is off to a strong start, having implemented several of the reports recommended strategies. We were the first state to make full-day kindergarten universally available. We created the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood project, which provides early educators with scholarships to obtain higher levels of education and incentives to ensure continuity of care for young children.
We pioneered the nations first comprehensive early childhood initiative, Smart Start, to improve the quality of child care, provide access to health screenings and offer support to families. We launched N.C. Pre-K (formerly More at Four) to provide at-risk children with high quality learning environments. These efforts have produced results.
More of our children are in high quality child care. We have the highest rate of developmental screenings in the nation. Our prekindergarten program is rated among the best in the country. A 2011 Duke University study found children had higher third grade reading and math scores and fewer special education placements in counties that received more funding for Smart Start and N.C. Pre-K when those children were younger. Imagine the impact if these programs were brought to scale.
More recent policies build on these strengths. Our General Assembly passed legislation requiring that funds used to help working families afford child care be directed to high quality programs. North Carolina was recently chosen to lead a consortium of states to develop a formative kindergarten through third grade assessment that looks at all developmental domains. It will be important that the assessment is not the ends, but the means to better inform and improve teacher practices in early child education through third grade.
We can be proud of the headway we have made and still recognize that more is needed. We can use this moment in time a collision of disappointing test scores and high stakes policy to think differently. Lets change the question from, Why are so many children struggling? to How can we ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed? Test scores will still measure the outcome, but the strategies that will get us there will begin at birth and build throughout childrens first eight years. By focusing on and accelerating what works, and strengthening partnerships across disciplines and traditional organizational boundaries, we can close the achievement gap and raise outcomes for all young children.
There may be no silver bullet, but North Carolina has something greater: A legacy of innovation and success that is more powerful than the problem.
Susan Perry-Manning is executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation