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In Massachusetts, more support needed for early education

Jane E. Tewksbury and John Jackson

Jane E. Tewksbury and John Jackson

To secure our first in the nation position as a leader in education for generations to come, Massachusetts must make targeted investments now to support our youngest learners.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2013 KIDS COUNT Data Book, a nationwide assessment of child well-being, Massachusetts leads the nation in educational achievement. Being the number one state in education in America is a tremendous accomplishment and cause for much celebration for a job well done.

Twenty years ago, Massachusetts made a commitment to invest in education and that investment has paid off. Today, our 4th graders are the best readers in the nation and our 8th graders have the highest proficiency in math.

Yet, it is still the case that 50 percent of all Massachusetts’s 4th graders are not reading proficiently—just as one-half of our 8th graders fall short of proficiency in math. Low-income children, in particular, face daunting challenges as their struggling families find themselves cut off from the middle class by widening economic inequality.

As it is now, one in seven children in Massachusetts lives in poverty, and roughly twice as many (421,000 children) live in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment. Not only is this kind of economic stress difficult for parents, it is damaging to their children. When Massachusetts families struggle, Massachusetts children suffer.

Children who grow up in poverty have lower math scores, lower reading scores, and lower graduation rates than other students. In 2012, only 72 percent of low income students in Massachusetts graduated from high school in four years, while 85 percent of all students graduated on time.

There are also serious long-term consequences for children who fall into this achievement gap. In our changing economy, a high school diploma is often not enough to find employment that will pay a livable wage. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has shown that Massachusetts workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn over twice as much as workers with just a high school degree.

Massachusetts already has the best educated workforce in the country with 45 percent of our workers having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, but we can do better. More importantly, we need to do better to secure our state’s future prosperity

First, we need to make targeted investments in early education and care when it can make the most difference in the trajectory of a child’s life, during the critical brain building phase when children’s experiences and relationships form a strong foundation for all future learning and skill development. Chronic stressful conditions, such as extreme poverty—what scientists now call “toxic stress”—actually disrupt the architecture of the developing brain. And we need to realign community resources and supports where they are most needed.

Second, Massachusetts must address the education and wealth disparities that are identifiable by race and ethnicity. No state—especially one that is considered to be a national leader—should accept the status quo where race, ethnicity or gender can predict whether an individual will be a productive member of the workforce or chronically unemployed. The opportunity to learn is a civil and human right that should be provided to every student in the Commonwealth.

Third, we need to help low income students develop the skills they need to reach their full potential and contribute to our knowledge economy. This will require investments in our public universities and in needs-based financial aid.

There is a reason Massachusetts has the top-rated education system in the nation. It is the result of the investments and reforms we began two decades ago to dramatically improve our educational system. Our No. 1 national ranking in education shows the return on that investment.

Now, we need to extend that success by investing what it takes to provide the support needed to ensure opportunities for those children who are still being left behind.

Jane E. Tewksbury is Executive Director of Thrive in 5, a public-private partnership of the City of Boston and United Way

Dr. John H. Jackson is President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education

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