College Readiness Starts Before Kindergarten

The Utah State Legislature and State Board of Education are moving forward in creating the 10-year plan required by HB 360, which was passed during the 2015 General Session. In preparation, the Utah State Legislature’s Education Interim Committee spent much of their July meeting discussing the topic of early grade reading and math proficiency. Early childhood education is a proven strategy to improve student achievement in reading and math, especially for at-risk populations. Members of the committee were informed that students who have lived in poverty and are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are three times more likely to drop out before earning a high school diploma.

This means that early success can keep children on track to graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary certificates and degrees.

Prosperity through Education, an education plan developed with the help of the business community, seeks to move Utah to the top ten among states in education; emphasizing improved outcomes in reading, math, high school graduation rates and increased postsecondary certificates and degrees. Not only will this allow more individuals to reach their potential, but it will also provide a workforce that will drive Utah’s continued success.

Early childhood education will ensure Utah’s youngest residents are proficient in math and reading. Prosperity through Education cites evidence of a substantial return on investments in early childhood programs, and calls for an investment of:

  • $65 million over the next five years to support early childhood literacy instruction (including expanded voluntary pre-K and full-day kindergarten),
  • $10 million to support early grades math instruction
  • $30 million for professional development activities

What has already been done?

Several school readiness initiatives have already been put in place by the Legislature with major successes resulting from these investments. For example, high-quality preschool and optional extended-day kindergarten programs are proving effective in increasing school readiness and in reducing the need for special education services. Most importantly, these early intervention opportunities help young students to read at grade-level.

It is important to note however, that comparing outcomes of these programs is challenging as there is not a statewide assessment of school readiness. Utah Superintendent of Education Brad Smith suggested it could be helpful to define what it means to be “school ready” and to develop a statewide assessment of school readiness.

What needs to change?

Because student demographic characteristics vary from school to school, there must be a portfolio of options to meet the varying needs of students. Options including public-public, public-private and community school models are worthy of funding. Each of these early childhood education programs need to also emphasize content driven academics, including phonics and math instruction and should teach school readiness behavior to avoid any suggestion that these programs are government subsidized day-care. Additionally, providing targeted, strategic professional development for teachers through coaching and mentoring is essential to ensure high-quality instruction.

Research presented by the Utah Foundation suggests that lessons may be learned from our neighbors in Colorado. Colorado has made a substantial commitment to state funded preschools and to full-day kindergarten. This is widely considered to be a contributing factor in Colorado’s strong rankings among states on measures of reading and math proficiency.

What can you do?

The presentations and discussions at the Education Interim Committee will shape legislative action on policy and funding options related to improving early grade reading and math proficiency in Utah. These decisions will have a lasting impact. Quality early childhood education offered to our children today will ensure that Utah continues to prosper as we develop our 21st century workforce

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