Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin

West Virginia's universal pre-K program is in the spotlight at a national gathering of experts on early learning in Washington D.C.

Last Friday, national experts in early learning met in Washington D.C. for a symposium on closing achievement gaps among young learners.

Co-sponsored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Children’s Defense Fund, and Sesame Street Workshop, the Success Starts Young event drew leaders from universities, state and local governments, and advocacy groups. Its three panels covered early learning standards, kindergarten readiness, and technology and young children’s learning. All told, the event centered on strategies to close the achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers.

Several prominent experts spoke, including Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop.

We were pleased to see West Virginia in the spotlight for their universal pre-K program, which has been lauded as one of the most successful models in the nation. In 2002, the state passed legislation to ensure that every 4-year-old would have access to a pre-k classroom by 2013. In 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked West Virginia fifth in the nation for pre-K access for four-year-olds.

“In most states, the discussion about college and career readiness starts with high school,” said Clayton Burch, assistant director of the Office of School Readiness at the West Virginia Department of Education, who spoke on a panel on early learning standards. “In West Virginia, it’s a more balanced discussion because we’ve backed that discussion up into our PreK to 3rd grade. You’ll never get to the outcomes you’re looking for unless you have strong PreK to 3rd.”

Burch said the state’s largest providers of early childhood education—including Head Start, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Department of Education—worked together to come to a consensus on a common set of early learning standards for children ages 3 through 5 that can be used across settings. Unlike other states, West Virginia will not have to juggle multiple levels of learning standards in and out of the P-12 system, an approach that experts say better aligns the state’s system with the way kids learn.

“We’re kind of at a different point than a lot of other states,” Burch said. “It’s not one system trying to fit into another. It’s just one system.”

Other experts on the panel emphasized how early learning standards have to be culturally sensitive to address the needs of dual language learners, or of children who are learning both English and a home language at the same time.

Another panel discussed technology and young children’s learning. Authors Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey discussed their new book, “Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.” The book focuses on ways digital media can help promote literacy in young children, rather than undermine it. The authors profile innovative uses of digital media for learning and in some cases to support dual language learning. For example, in rural Maine, Comienza en Casa is bringing tablets loaded with educational apps to the homes of immigrant families and training parents on how to use the apps with their children to ready them for kindergarten.

“We need to get past the tired nagging of ‘no screen time’ and the overheated enthusiasm over apps as the holy grail of early education,” Guernsey said in a recent NPR interview about the new book. “Instead, let’s take a more mindful approach and combine the power of parents, educators, and high-quality media (print and digital) to make literacy opportunities available to all kids and families, regardless of income.”


Published September 23, 2015