DURING MY DOCTORAL
program many years ago, several of my classmates and their professor went to Bolivia to study why so many children could not learn to read in school. Here is what they observed and concluded.
Many parents, eking out a living in rural, mountainous areas, spent their days tilling their crops. They often placed their infants into sacks that were hung on nearby trees and posts.
Bodily movement, human interaction and critical brain development in the first months and years of life were thereby lost in the child’s upbringing. Normal cognitive and social-emotional learning by the brain was reduced significantly, undermining their K-12 literacy development.
In America, we don’t put babies and small children into sacks, yet vast numbers of preschool-age children are raised in homes and neighborhoods where their fullest cognitive and social-emotional development is denied, diminished or misdirected. Their brain’s development and learning are negatively altered before they ever begin kindergarten, greatly altering their life potential. It carries tremendous social and economic consequences.
The deficit in rates of formal school learning of children in K-12 classrooms has been dubbed “the achievement gap.” By association, this lays the blame and shame on public school systems once these children begin their education at age 5.
A more appropriate label is “the opportunity gap,” which rightly includes the tremendous, critical impact of the home and neighborhood during the first five years of life.
Do the math. The ratio of awake hours of child development in homes and neighborhoods compared to time spent in a K-12 classroom is nearly 4:1. Add in the five preschool years, the ratio climbs to nearly 6.0 to 1.0. But let us not be tempted to blame hard-pressed parents of preschool children. We in public education know how that feels. Blaming fixes little and discourages much.
Thirty years ago, pediatricians in Boston observed in their littlest patients that kindergarten readiness and K-12 literacy learning and deportment related directly to the socioeconomic status of parents, especially affecting adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. The pediatricians formed the nonprofit Reach Out and Read.
During its first eight years, Reach Out and Read started chapters in every state, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Doctors in partnering health clinics received training to include an educational component stimulating brain development into clinic visits of all parents of preschool-age children.
In addition to childhood vaccinations and information on nutrition, clinic staff dispense advice on maximizing child brain development through talking, singing, reading and positive, personal interactions. They also distribute age-, language- and culturally appropriate books for home reading at each clinic visit.
ROR is a great start but not nearly enough. The organization’s affiliated health clinics are continuing to expand. In Minnesota, the program now reaches 40 percent of the preschool population.
K-12 school leaders have a responsibility to inform their constituents, the general public and state and federal legislators about the latest early childhood research and its implications for resolving the pervasive opportunity gaps.
Effective school leaders realize the work of educators isn’t enough. These leaders apply the power of research and relationships, pen and tongue, to advocate on behalf of students. Promoting the critical importance of the preschool feeder system to the community’s K-12 school system is where the biggest challenges now lie to make hope and potential blossom for all American children.
a retired superintendent in Minnetonka, Minn., was the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year. A previous version of his column appeared in Lakeshore Weekly News