"If you don't catch a child in time, you lose the child forever," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. Energized by a slide showing the correlation between early childhood education and human brain development, he said the message it conveyed "should be on TV. A powerful graphic presented over and over will have more impact than 400 meetings. We need more of this kind of information to become the currency of the dialogue."
The statistics are hard-hitting. According to Wheelock College's Adrian Haugabrook, if a student does not have proficient literacy skills by third grade, there is already a significant gap that is difficult to close. If a student does not take algebra by ninth grade, he has an increased chance of dropping out in high school. If students are not stimulated during the summer, their learning loss can only compound the problem.
Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading sums it up with what he calls the "Three Strikes You're Out" case:
1. You come in so far behind that you cannot catch up by third grade without extraordinary efforts.
2. You have missed too much school and instructional time.
3. You lose ground during the summer (sometimes known as the "summer slide").
"This spells disaster for low-income kids," said Smith. "Even with the right culture, climate and leadership, you can't do all that needs to be done without mobilizing communities to get more kids showing up every day."
But as John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan pointed out, "There are some bright spots." He cited the work of Smith and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaboration among 80 foundations across the U.S., along with more than 120 communities, to move more third graders to grade level by the end of the year.
H.S. Thompson Learning Center (Dallas, Texas), George Hall Elementary (Mobile, Alabama) and North Godwin Elementary School (Grand Rapids, Michigan) were cited by Engler as the Campaign's "Bright Spot" Schools, which have achieved meaningful results with students predominantly eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
Smith praised the Continuum of Learning Act that Casey introduced in the Senate to strengthen the coordination among Head Start, supplemental care and other programs, so that students have a strong foundation for success. "The differences [among the programs] need to be torn down. We need a comprehensive, aligned system that keeps kids at the center."
Haugabrook echoed the call for increased public-private partnerships. "Is there a new ceiling we can set? Why not encourage movement towards 'advanced' [proficiency]?"
"This is not only a problem for our children," said Dr. Elanna Yalow, CEO of Knowledge Universe Early Learning Programs. "It is society's problem."
- Jana Rausch Coffey, Milken Family Foundation