Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Earlier this month in Hyannis, MA, 25 school superintendents and school committee members from across the commonwealth heard a first-hand account of how one state – New Jersey – is leveraging investments in high-quality early education to help children prepare for grade-school success.

The session – “Lessons Learned: Leveraged Investments in High-Quality Early Education to Narrow the Achievement Gap” – was part of the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Setting the Stage

The session began with Chris Martes, who is acting superintendent in Wrentham, the former head of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and a Strategies for Children board member. Martes pointed to the large number of children who arrive in kindergarten with skills that already lag behind the abilities of their peers. To help these children, Martes explained, K-12 education leaders and early education providers should seize the vital opportunity to collaborate, working together to close the achievement gap.

Carolyn Lyons, president and CEO of Strategies for Children, explained the educational environment in Massachusetts, pointing to troubling MCAS results. A daunting 43 percent of this state’s third graders are not proficient readers. Among children from low-income families, a shocking 65 percent are not proficient.

Lyons explained that three-quarters of third graders who struggle with reading will continue to struggle in school. And children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times less likely than their peers to graduate from high school by age 19. Students who drop out of high school cost Massachusetts taxpayers an estimated $349,000 over their lifetimes compared to the average high school graduate.

To close the achievement gap, Lyons said, we must respond to what the research tells us: We need to invest in children’s earliest years to ensure their foundation for future success.

New Jersey’s Story

One approach that has leveraged investments in early education to narrow achievement gaps is New Jersey’s Abbott preschool program.

As we blogged here, the seeds of New Jersey’s success were planted in the 1980s by the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit. In that case, the court ruled that New Jersey had to improve the education offered in 31 of its “low-wealth, urban school districts,” to ensure “the children in these schools a ‘thorough and efficient’ education, as required by the New Jersey Constitution,” according to the Education Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equal educational opportunities for New Jersey’s children.

In March, W. Steven Barnett, director of NIEER, wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed about children covered by the Abbott ruling, “Like many of their peers throughout the nation, most children had been attending preschool and child care programs of poor to mediocre quality, and they were entering kindergarten as much as 18 months behind. Thus began a nearly inevitable slide toward failure and dropping out for far too many.”

Barnett added, “Rather than simply replace this system, New Jersey transformed it.”

Speaking at the superintendent’s conference, Cynthia Rice provided details of New Jersey’s history and progress. An attorney and senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Rice explained that New Jersey’s approach engages both public and private programs to provide high-quality preschool to three- and four-year-olds living in the Abbott districts. Today, nearly 45,000 preschool-aged children from low-income families are participating. Fifty-six percent of them attend private and Head Start programs.

In 2000, the decision in Abbott determined that high-quality preschool would include:

– a maximum of 15 children per class

– a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and early childhood education certification

– a teacher’s aide

– the implementation of a comprehensive, research-based curriculum.

Scholarship programs helped early educators go back to school to earn their degrees. Now, these well-trained educators work intensively to ensure that children are developing strong literacy, language and math skills. And all teachers, regardless of setting, receive comparable salaries and benefits.

As its preschool efforts have grown, New Jersey has pushed for and achieved a wide range of quality improvements that have improved outcomes for children. The results are striking: nearly every classroom “has achieved a ‘5’ out of ‘7’ on the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-R),” according to a slide that Rice shared at the conference.

Research on New Jersey’s efforts shows that two years of preschool attendance has a longer lasting effect than one year. In addition, there have been decreases in grade retention and special education placement rates.

Massachusetts has also made advances in building a stronger, statewide system of early education and care. However, as Helen Charlupski, a Brookline school committee member and the final speaker at the conference session, explained, Massachusetts has not matched the investments that New Jersey made as a result of the Abbott case. There is much more work to be done.

As the session speakers made clear, we cannot afford to wait and see if children do well in kindergarten. And we cannot hope that they catch up on crucial reading and math skills in the early grades. Instead Massachusetts and the nation should invest in what works: high-quality, research-based early education and care programs delivered through a mix of settings that have a proven record of helping children thrive.