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Jobs and schools promise to be top issues in next year’s city elections. The mayor’s education agenda faces its toughest test in the African-American communities that gave him strong support in 2011.

Illinois must make early learning a priority

Students who do not transition from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn by 4th grade often fall further behind and are at greater risk of dropping out.

The cornerstone of Illinois’ educational strength lies in providing all children a strong, early start in school and in life. How Illinois develops, educates and supports its young children bears directly on the future of the state. Several national measures suggest Illinois ranks as a leading state in providing children, particularly children in need, a strong foundation.

Yet when Advance Illinois recently released its 2012 report card on Illinois public education, early education received for the second time an Incomplete.  This was informed by national rankings, enrollment patterns and data when available on dozens of key metrics. Significant information gaps persist in early education, however, that, as a state, we must address if we are to target resources and services to the students most in need of early support.

Providing a strong, early start to young children is one of the state’s most powerful opportunities to close the achievement gap before it begins, and we collectively must build upon our early work in this area.

First, however, I would offer some context for the grade and direction for how Illinois might fill the information gaps that continue in early education.

New information on kindergarten readiness

Illinois improved access to early education during the past decade and today enrolls 20 percent of 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs, making Illinois a leading state in this effort. The rate of growth slowed recently, however, as the economy worsened and state funding declined. Unfortunately, fewer children may be served in the coming year due to a $25 million cut to the state’s early childhood block grant this year.

National research suggests that before they even begin kindergarten, 4-year-olds who live in poverty are nearly 14 months behind their classmates. But in Illinois, when students arrive in kindergarten – the front door of the K-12 education system – the state knows little about where they stand cognitively, emotionally and socially. This critical information would help educators target resources and supports that students need early in their academic lives. As importantly, information about students’ kindergarten readiness encourages families to engage sooner and in smarter ways.

The good news is this fall, Illinois piloted a developmentally-appropriate kindergarten readiness measure that is expected to roll out statewide in 2015-16. This is not a paper and pencil test. And this is not about high-stakes exams. This is about giving teachers tools, training and a common language to observe and describe student development and identify what we need to do – as educators, as parents, as adults – to meet them where they are.

The lack of clarity about student readiness is not the only information gap that constrains Illinois’ early education efforts.

As a state, we know little about the quality of children’s early education experiences, the demographic and economic backgrounds of students served in state-funded programs and whether students eligible for bilingual early education instruction, in fact, receive the services that state law now requires. Such information would help identify gaps and target resources at a time when Illinois has finite amounts of them.

Because of this critical information gap, Advance Illinois assigned the state an incomplete for early education, as it did two years ago in The State We’re In: 2010.  (Illinois’ K-12 and postsecondary education systems received a C- and C+ respectively.)

Notably, Illinois held its ground as student poverty increased.  The next step is to ensure that more students achieve at high level.  Illinois faces a real challenge in determining how best to develop and support its youngest children, particularly those born in poverty.

Whether supported by research or our own observations, we know the early years provide the best window to eliminate the achievement gap before it takes root. This is vital if the state is to improve academic outcomes and opportunities for all students.

Reading by 4th grade essential

The hard truth is Illinois is not getting the majority of students where they need to go, and this fact has not changed in the past decade. When Advance Illinois looked at key milestones in a student’s academic life, we found that one-third of students succeed. For the rest, the education system simply isn’t working.

This is particularly striking in 4th grade. One-third of Illinois 4th-graders read proficiently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, and decades of research suggests this is one of the most powerful predictors of future success. Students who do not transition from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn by this point often fall further behind and are at greater risk of dropping out.

The trend continues throughout the state’s education system. For every 100 Illinois students who begin high school, for instance, less than one-third will go on to earn a two- or four-year degree.

As a state, we cannot wait until high school to intervene. The good news is we’re not.

For the first time in a long time, Illinois has a broad reform plan that aims to strengthen the education system from the early years through college graduation day. This requires building upon initiatives that enroll more children in early education programs, creating a developmentally-appropriate method to gauge student development early in their schooling, providing school report cards that help families understand how schools and districts serve students and how to engage in their child’s education as well as raise expectations for students and educators alike.

Lasting improvement takes time and the impact on student achievement does not happen overnight. Funding cuts made in recent years exacerbate what already is challenging work. But Illinois is on its way and can succeed.

As a state, we all have work to do.

Robin M. Steans is executive director of Advance Illinois.


Sandra Stone wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

Early Childhood for All

When neighborhood public schools close due to education reform policy, the families and children they serve lose their early childhood programs. In Chicago, those programs have been well designed in terms of teacher qualifications, curriculum, and services. Their parent involvement components serve to stabilize families and communities. Walking a small child to a half day program at another school further away is not feasible for many families to manage. Three and four year children are not usually transported on daily buses. How does Advance Illinois reconcile the loss of quality public preschools and Headstarts in Chicago to its position that early childhood education should be available for all children, particularly those in poverty, where most school closings occur? I ask because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funding source and initial developer of Advance Illinois and I am concerned about their agenda.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Is test information more

Is test information more important than secure food and housing for poor kids?

Starting in the fall of 2012, Chicago kindergartners must take 17 tests. The Erickson Institute finds this excessive, as does the CTU and parents.
As you know, there are standardized tests for 3- and 4-year olds who are enrolled in public preschool.

During Illinois' fiscal crisis, should we continue to spend more and more on testing and on the technology to support that testing? All of which takes time away from learning.

Or should we instead set a 5-year goal to expand enrollment in preschool from 20% of 3 year olds to ALL 3 year olds living in poverty, and from 29% of 4 year olds to ALL 4 year olds living in poverty?

Let's stop the over testing of children. We already know the development of children who live in poverty usually lags that of children who do not; children who are not, for example, homeless, who do not have food insecurity, and who do not lack for medical care. These children can spend lots of time having books read to them, playing learning games on the computer, painting, playing with friends at the park, and on and on.
There is no surprise to any of this.

Can you explain how, if Illinois spends millions and millions on more testing, it will not shift scarce funding away from directly helping poor children to testing companies?

Anonymous wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

There have been many studies

There have been many studies of the usefulness of preschool for poor children. The Perry Preschool Program is one that James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist, argues is so clearly successful that public funds should be used to pay for poor kids to go to preschool -- and that it actually saves the government money in the long run.

“The cost to society of courst and crime is lowered. The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line.”

Anonymous wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Learn more on resisting

Learn more on resisting excessive testing.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

CPS planning on charging parents for pre-school

sliding scale for charges--letter from BBB--anyone see it yet?
bbb asking to wait on sign-up prek students for 2013
When will schools know if they get to keep their pre-k programs?

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