The achievement gap is a term used so regularly in the education world that its realities can sometimes lose their significance. But according to new research from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the gap is still very much here in California, resulting in sizable disparities between African American and Latino children and their white and Asian peers.
Just a few of the highlights: A 4th grade white student in California is three times more likely to be reading proficient than an African American one; an 8th grade Asian student is nearly four times more likely than a Latino student to be proficient in math. These differences transfer well into adulthood, yielding substantial inequities between young adults in their access to higher education and careers.
Since research shows children’s vocabulary development by the age of 3 can predict how well they perform in 3rd grade, more than anything else these new results spell the urgent need to ensure all children have access to the early learning opportunities research shows help prepare them for academic and lifelong success.
The good news is California now has the opportunity to increase support for early learning through the state’s new education finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula, a landmark reform that holds school districts accountable to meeting long-range goals to improve outcomes for all students, particularly those who are disadvantaged. Under the school finance formula, all districts will develop Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that push them to meet objectives under eight state priority areas, four of which early learning has been proven to impact and support: student achievement, student engagement, school climate and parent involvement.
But to use early learning as a key strategy in meeting their accountability goals, districts first have to recognize its value and pledge a commitment to ensuring more children will have access to these programs and services. A strong body of research will back up these assertions. Take the priority of parental engagement: Research shows parents whose children participate in a preschool that encourages involvement stay more engaged throughout K-12. Or improving student engagement: Research has found that children who participate in early learning programs can be up to 55 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not participate.
While some would argue that districts need to focus just on K-12 and leave early learning to others, both research and experiences of other states and countries tell us otherwise: The achievement gap, reading proficiency by 3rd grade, the dropout rate and workforce development would all be significantly improved by expanding California’s early childhood education programs. Given California’s prevalence of minority and low-income students, the need for these services is more pervasive and significant here than in any other state, especially with the considerable cuts to these services the past few years.
While we also recognize that school districts need to bolster a multitude of programs downsized or lost during the economic downturn, we urge local school boards and superintendents to look to early childhood education as a way to make a considerable impact throughout the K-12 system. We now know more than ever that pledging long-term support to early childhood education services – such as preschool and quality childcare – will lead to the most significant, lasting gains for children and unparalleled economic benefits for communities at large.
From the president to state legislators, elected officials throughout the country are finally recognizing the tremendous promise early learning holds to improve children’s outcomes – especially those children who are most at risk. We need our local education leaders in California to do the same. While we realize that districts can’t build a comprehensive early childhood system overnight, they can take a small step this year and document their support for early learning under the new finance law. To provide guidance on how to do this, Children Now has created a primer that explains LCFF and where early learning fits in. This information will help anyone – from school leaders to community organizations to parents – make sure early learning is recognized as a critical strategy for meeting California’s new accountability priorities for education.
By providing support for early learning this year, and continuing it year after year, districts can help ensure these programs and services are more accessible, putting school success in reach of all children.
Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now. Mark Friedman is the CEO of First 5 Alameda County.
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