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Closing educational gap starts early

Published June 08. 2014 4:00AM

The evidence is clear and accepted that Connecticut has one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the nation. For many years, lower income and minority students have scored considerably lower on standardized tests than have their white, wealthier peers.

Yet even as state education officials and lawmakers have made careers working on programming and policies aimed at narrowing this gap, too many residents of suburban towns, including many throughout southeastern Connecticut, consider the achievement gap as something that happens someplace else, to someone else's children.

Sorry to disappointment, but the truth is that achievement gaps exist in nearly every school district.

Children enter kindergarten with vast differences. The children who begin school with the fewest enriching life experiences often are the same ones who struggle academically. Sadly, the gap that exists among 5-year-olds often persists, even widens, as children grow older.

Teachers and administrators have known this for years. Some 15 years ago, a local suburban elementary school principal summed up the challenges of igniting a love for reading in some young children. It is difficult to get a child who has never been to circus to love a book about elephants and acrobats, she said. Another school administrator in another local town, echoed those sentiments: Some children start school able to discuss the various micro-systems of a beach; others start school having never seen a beach.

If the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging one exists, the good news for young children is that many more superintendents and boards of education in the region have acknowledged that one way to work to set young children on the path to education success is to institute all-day kindergarten.

In the 2012-2013 school year, 74 percent of Connecticut's school districts offered all-day kindergarten. In the current school year, that percentage leaped to 88. Locally, East Lyme, Griswold, Ledyard, Montville and Stonington added all-day kindergarten programs, joining towns such as Waterford, Groton and New London that have had the programming for longer. The Norwich school board appears committed to moving toward universal all-day kindergarten, despite facing tough budget constraints set by the City Council.

Administrators in the districts just completing a full school year with all-day kindergarten are happily reporting encouraging results.

Take this example from Stonington: a mid-year assessment found some 90 percent of the town's kindergarteners at goal for language arts. Before the adding of an extra 2.5 hours a day of kindergarten, results from the annual assessment had remained stubbornly consistent for years: about 60 percent of kindergarteners would be at goal at mid-year. Put another way, Stonington kindergarteners demonstrated a level of language arts achievement mid-way through the school year that their predecessors had consistently demonstrated only by the end of the school year.

Some studies of the long-term impact of preschool and all-day kindergarten continue to show the positive effects of early childhood programming dissipates by third grade. Lawmakers in some states use these studies to argue that all-day kindergarten or universal preschool wastes taxpayer money.

What a cynical calculation. The conclusion to be drawn from such studies is not that preschool preparation and all-day kindergarten are a waste, but instead that our schools and families need to do a better job of sustaining the positive effects. With an increased focus on assuring all students learn a core curriculum, steps to boost parent involvement, and better measures to evaluate teacher performance, our schools are putting in place tools to guard against academic retrogression.

The next challenge is expanding preschool opportunities, with the ultimate goal of universal preschool. As with all-day kindergarten, a quality preschool program equips children to learn when they begin their formal education and closes the achievement gap.

Taxpayers in some towns have rebelled, as was the case with all-day kindergarten. As a state, we need to figure out how to afford it. The return will be well worth the investment.

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