Op-Ed: College and Career Readiness Begins Before Kindergarten

Cynthia Rice | December 21, 2011 | Opinion
Without early learning, too many children will struggle forever as they try to catch up

New Jersey’s College and Career Readiness Task Force is about to make recommendations to ensure that all students are “college or career” ready. We have a simple message: start early.

Research shows that children who master reading by 3rd grade are more likely to succeed in school. Third grade is a pivotal year for young students. It is then that they start “reading to learn,” rather than “learning to read.”

If children are not proficient readers by 3rd grade, they struggle to catch up for years to come — and often never do. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that one in six children who are not proficient 3rd grade readers will not graduate from high school on time — a rate four times higher than that of proficient readers.

Even with this compelling research, thousands of New Jersey children continue to flounder. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, only 60 percent of the state’s 3rd graders were reading on grade level during the 2009-2010 school year, leaving 40 percent at risk of ever achieving long-term educational success.

The numbers are even worse for children from low-income families, with just 43 percent mastering reading by 3rd grade.

If all New Jersey students are to attain college and career readiness, we must recognize the strong link between this goal and 3rd grade reading proficiency.

Our state must build a strong early learning system that maximizes our existing quality preschool program. This can only happen by extending that quality through 3rd grade, linking each year of learning to the next.

To accomplish this, teachers, school administrators and parents must work together across grade levels to ensure that all children’s learning experiences build on past years and connect with those to come.

An effective pre-k through 3rd grade experience provides:

  • High-quality and coordinated learning in well-staffed classrooms
  • Well-prepared teachers and aides to educate children in the 3-8 age range
  • Supportive school district policies
  • Strong school and district leadership that includes supporting professional development time for teachers to plan for effective coordination across and between grades
  • Families and communities that share accountability for young children’s educational success.
  • We need to move away from our silo approach to education and develop aligned and coordinated strategies and resources during these critical years of early learning.

    New Jersey has taken some steps in this direction. But much work still needs to be done. Expanding high-quality preschool, mandating full-day kindergarten, and providing much-needed early-learning training for school administrators are just a few ways to build an effective early-learning system.

    The first step is for our state leaders to think differently about how we prepare students for college or a career. We need to recognize that the construction of child’s academic foundation begins in the very early years.

    We must dedicate resources to ensuring that children spend those years in high-quality classrooms with coordination among the grades. This will maximize their learning experience and increase the chances that all children will master reading by the 3rd grade.

    We hope the task force incorporates this simple but critical lesson in the recommendations they will make to prepare our children to compete in a fast-changing global economy. Without early learning, we will continue to lose too many children, as they forever struggle to catch up.