The recent report by Strategies for Children, Inc. is the latest piece of evidence that the most effective way to close the achievement gap between poor, minority children and their affluent suburban classmates is to prevent it from developing in the first place.
The report’s finding that almost half of the third graders in Massachusetts are not proficient readers is sobering, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. In almost every urban school district, low-income and minority students are falling further behind their affluent peer groups on standardized tests.
Socio-economic disadvantages manifest academically and socially and are obvious from the first day a child enters school. Educational research tells us that prior knowledge and vocabulary are essential for academic success. Affluent preschoolers develop a more extensive vocabulary than economically disadvantaged children, have more opportunity to learn to read and are exposed to a broader world-view.
Data show that if the literacy issues are not addressed by third grade, the gap widens and it becomes more difficult for teachers to bridge the divide.
Just as policymakers and the health care industry have engaged in an all-out effort to promote preventative health services to avoid more expensive, long-term medical issues, so too must education policymakers promote an all-out effort to implement comprehensive literacy programs for preschoolers to prevent serious academic issues from developing.
State and federal policy makers need to move aggressively to create new school models and provide incentives to implement reforms aimed at preventing the achievement gap. The recommendation offered by Strategies for Children to require preschool teachers to have college degrees is a lofty goal that should be incorporated into an overall early literacy campaign.
There is no substitute for comprehensive, structured, full-day early childhood education and intervention programs to address and prevent the problem as early as possible.
The programs implemented and the strategies employed at the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School over the past several years provide a good case study for policymakers to review.
Faced with low test scores and a challenging student population, Renaissance, a Pre-K-6 charter public school whose student population is 96 percent African American and Latino and more than three-quarters low-income, implemented a rigorous, assessment-driven, full-day early childhood education program focused on vocabulary and reading comprehension.
The school first introduced a pre-Kindergarten program for 4-and-5-year-olds in 2000, and formalized a more comprehensive early education program with the founding of a “Kinder School” in 2003 that functioned as a “school with a school.” With eight K1 (pre-school) and eight K2 classes, Renaissance now houses the largest early childhood education program in Boston.
The programs focus on early literacy, comprehension, writing and oral recognition, and also include development of fine motor abilities, social skills, confidence and character. Programs like “Big Math for Little Kids” are used to develop math skills. The curriculum even includes Mandarin beginning in kindergarten.
Staff, including instructional coaches, early reading intervention teachers and paraprofessionals, craft an individualized plan based on each child’s strengths and weaknesses, as identified by regular assessments. Students are pulled out three to five times each week for additional instruction. Teachers are actively involved in professional development programs to support them in the classroom.
The effort has resulted in dramatic improvements in student achievement. Renaissance now bests statewide MCAS averages in third grade English. Last year, 79 percent of Renaissance third graders scored “advanced” or “proficient” on the reading portion of MCAS compared to 36 percent in 2002. Proficiency rates in Grades 4, 5 and 6 have also increased dramatically over the past several years.
The academic gains were also evident in the school’s math scores — 66 percent of our third graders scored advanced or proficient last year, compared to just 36 percent in 2006. Fifth grade math proficiency climbed from 18 percent in 2006 to 57 percent in 2009.
The school made “adequate yearly progress” under the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” for all subgroups in both English and math in 2009. Only one-third of all public schools statewide achieved that goal.
The success of these early education and intervention programs provide a road map for how the achievement gap can be conquered. Just as they provide children with a strong educational foundation to succeed, they can also provide a solid foundation on which to build urban reform efforts across the country.
Dr. Roger Harris is the superintendent of the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, which educates more than 1,100 children in Grades Pre-K through 6 in Boston.