The Education Gap

Making sure no child is left behind means starting academic learning long before kindergarten


Becker No Child Left BehindWhy have so many children been left behind? That should be the central question as Congress debates reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—formerly known as No Child Left Behind.

The intent of the law was to ensure that all students were proficient readers by 2014, but it fell short of this goal. Experts point to many reasons why it missed the mark—lack of funding and focus on high stakes testing, among others—but there is a simpler explanation: lack of access to early childhood education.

There is one key data point that educators reference all the time: the percentage of children reading on grade level by third grade.

Why is this so important? Because reading at grade level by third grade has been shown to be not only a significant predictor of high school performance but also of graduation and college attendance.

Ask any kindergarten teacher who has worked with disadvantaged children—kids from homes and communities with limited resources—and the answer is clear: The reason they are left behind is they never had a chance to begin with. By the time many of these children entered formal schooling, they were so far behind their more advantaged peers that the goal of proficient reading by third grade seemed unattainable. When children enter elementary school unable to state their names, use a pencil or correctly hold a book, they need a tremendous amount of language and literacy exposure to catch up with their peers.

I have had the opportunity to work with many disadvantaged students. I have seen children enter kindergarten unsure of the difference between letters and numbers or how one would use them. In contrast, some children walk into elementary school speaking complex sentences, writing a lot of words and bringing with them the enrichment of being surrounded by books at home. These children have the requisite skills to make it to grade-level reading in third grade, but many of their peers won’t make it.

These problems are acute all across Southside Virginia. Often families here and in other rural areas find there are limited options for high quality day care and preschool—options that expose children to music, art, active social experiences and structured literacy activities. This lack of access to early learning opportunities forces families to make incredibly difficult choices and, in too many cases, to settle for less than ideal child care options.

This has to stop. We must assist families in the very early years of children’s development because it becomes increasingly difficult to make up for an early lack of language and literacy. But what does that look like?

As President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union address, a firm commitment must be made to provide quality preschool for families with young children. And the commitment needs to make an impact on more than just children at the margins—we should serve students from all economic and social backgrounds.

In Southside and Southwest Virginia, some of the most economically depressed regions in the state, community-based organizations and institutions are well poised to serve as the touch point for high-quality early childhood education. In Farmville—the town that serves as a hub for six surrounding counties—Longwood has the potential to serve this function, and, indeed, planning has already begun to offer high quality affordable early childcare to members of the community. The university has strong ties to other educational organizations and can serve as a model for nationwide change.

Dr. Sara Miller is an assistant professor of education and co-coordinator of the elementary and middle school education programs at Longwood.

Dr. Sara Miller is an
assistant professor of
education and co-coordinator
of the elementary and
middle school education
programs at Longwood.

If the revised ESEA is to have a chance of being successful, it must address student readiness for school and the availability of high-quality early learning opportunities.

Quality early childhood education cannot continue to be a luxury available only to families who can afford it—all children deserve rich early educational experiences. Every one of us must advocate for other people’s children as if they were our own. This is the only way to make the American dream truly an option for all Americans. If we are to leave no child behind, we must ensure that all children get to the starting line.