The state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision has this year’s legislators scrambling to pump more dollars – and reforms, we hope – into the public schools.
A potential pitfall is that education will be defined too narrowly.
As far as the law is concerned, “basic education” is delivered from kindergarten through high school. That’s what the Legislature is constitutionally obligated to fund. But what happens before kindergarten – early learning – is at least as important. More so, for many students.
As a rule, kids who aren’t reading as well as their peers by the fourth grade are at great risk of eventually dropping out. Sadly, they often show up on the first day of kindergarten with disadvantages so great that only heroic teaching efforts can help them catch up.
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And the same factors that hurt them before kindergarten – such as absentee dads, poverty, untreated illnesses and homes bereft of books – are often still dogging them in the early grades.
Statewide efforts to help these children have been plagued by a lack of information. Washington has had no system in place to track disparities in kindergarten readiness and do something about them. Until now.
Over the last two years, at the behest of the Legislature, early-learning specialists have been development the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills. WaKIDS, as it is called, aims to assist incoming kindergartners in several ways. It emphases parental education, for example, for moms and dads who want to prepare their children for academics but don’t know where to begin.
Just this month, it has also begun delivering precious hard numbers.
Despite longstanding concerns about achievement opportunity gaps, this state had never taken a close, statistical look at the needs of its kindergartners.
Under WaKIDS, kindergarten teachers are evaluating their new students against commonly accepted standards. For example: Can they write their own names? Are they familiar with books? Do they make friends?
Roughly a quarter of all state kindergartners were evaluated this first year. It turns out that a little more than 70 percent of them came in reasonably well-prepared. That happens to be close to the state’s high school graduation rate, which may be no coincidence.
Racial and ethnic gaps showed up in the numbers as well, which is certainly no coincidence.
WaKIDS is coming on line at an opportune moment.
These numbers dramatize the importance of preschool programs like ECEAP and Head Start – and the even greater importance of helping struggling young parents teach their children at home.
The Legislature can’t nurture a high-performance K-12 system if it fails to do the same for early learning.