Starting at the school door is not soon enough

Recently I read an open letter from Michael Hays to Senator Lee Cotter concerning how to fix the 79% deficit in student reading performance in the fourth grade. As I see it, Hays believes the fix for NM is to upgrade colleges of education as opposed to Cotter’s support of widespread third grade retentions. Both are ideas for serious discussion but they don’t address the single factor that has been found to be the most important for student success.

Let’s step back and put the whole situation in perspective. Five years of life experiences have gone by before a child gets to school. Brain development in the first few years are the foundation for all learning that follows. What happens at home during this time has more influence on future success than anything that comes later.

Think of something you learned to do well. Maybe you are a great cook, play on a baseball team, or consider music an important pleasure in your life?

What is your very first memory of that experience? Quite likely, you can remember back to when you were three years old.

Now think of your best subjects in school. Is there a connection between your earliest memories and your school experiences? If you never touched a ball, how did you do in P.E? If your family didn’t dance or sing, how was your aptitude for music class?

For the first five years of life, every child’s first teachers are their caregivers. During the time when the brain is growing fastest and making crucial neural connections, a child is attaching emotionally, emulating, and trying to please the primary caregiver in the family.

Yes, educational excellence is of paramount importance and colleges of education are charged with the responsibility to train and produce the very best Reading teachers. Of course, public schools need to be accountable to standards, and milestones must be met to insure that learning is provided in a developmentally appropriate sequence for most of the children. I won’t argue with any of this. But, when looking for solutions, starting at the school door is not soon enough.

What happens at home between birth and the first day of kindergarten has much more to do with academic achievement than the number of years spent in third grade.

If a child grows up in a home where family games are played around the kitchen table and in the park, where throwing a ball, watching and talking sports is a favorite pastime, if music permeates the air, that child will enter school ready to excel at recess, PE, Music and even Math. Add books and shared family reading time to that mix and now our theoretical little kid is on a level playing field for Reading which opens the rest of the curriculum as well.

Lots of talking, naming, explaining, telling stories, and reading books together for pleasure, along with opportunities to ask and answer questions are fundamental learning skills. Starting school with these experiences make it much more likely that the curriculum in each grade will be developmentally appropriate and the transition from one grade to the next will be seamless.

Parents need to know that Kindergarten is changing to keep up with a fast paced world:

Children are expected to come to school able to recognize their own names as well as the names and sounds of letters and be able to print many of them in both upper and lowercase, count to 20 and see the one to one correspondence of numbers to objects, retell a story they have heard, and draw a picture to tell about an experience. They need to be able to concentrate on a task for five minutes, participate politely in group activity, and be flexible enough to adjust to new people and situations.

If 79% of our community’s children are not reading at grade level, there are lots of things that need to be done, including teacher training and school reform, but first parents need to be informed of what society’s expectations are and how easily they can be addressed at home in the earliest years. Finding out after school starts is entirely too late.