For a country that posits education as the best pathway out of poverty, it’s an inconvenient truth: Too many low-income children in the United States have fallen beyond the reach of schools because they start off too far behind, miss too many days of class during the year, and lose even more ground over the summer months.

But acknowledging that truth also means facing another, said Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, at the Indiana Youth Institute’s Because KIDS COUNT Annual Conference last month.

“So much of the work we are doing and that we feel good about is confronted with the reality that the achievement gap is not closing and in fact is growing,” said Smith. “It is growing not because of what is happening in schools but because of what is happening outside of schools."

Needed are systems of services and supports that operate 24-hours a day, seven-days-a-week and 365-days a year to reach both low-income children and their families. Schools can’t provide those systems, Smith said, but we continue to act as if they can with school-centric approaches to closing the gaps. 

Smith noted that Massachusetts, which ranked first in the nation for 4th grade reading proficiency on the 2015 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), also has one of the country’s biggest achievement gaps. That year, black fourth graders in the Bay State scored 25 points below white students on reading proficiency. Hispanic students scored 28 points lower. Those gaps have not changed since the late 1990s, according to the NAEP.

“Massachusetts has done everything that we tend to say is needed to create an excellent school system, they did it all and it worked – it worked for the top half. It failed the bottom half,” Smith said. “So pursuing a school-centric strategy helps us to achieve excellence for the top half but not equity for the bottom half.”

Paul Reville, former Massachusetts Secretary of Education and now head of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, has noted most school systems allocate time and resources in ways that don’t help kids in the bottom half, Smith noted. Segregating child welfare, juvenile justice, public library, public school and other funding also doesn't help kids who have fallen so far behind they can’t catch up.

“How do we get the talent, expertise and the dollars we commit to those system and build a new one that can ensure every child gets the requisite number of touches, in the right sequence, and at the right dosage? When you think of what we do – all of us – which group of us would be willing to say ‘The kids I work with get all the touches they need in the right sequence at the right dosage?’ None of us are comfortable saying that."

Smith’s remarks underscore the need for local community coalition building across organizations that support and provide early education, said John Pierce, a consultant based in Fort Wayne, Indiana who advises the state’s Early Learning Advisory Committee.

“The early childhood domain is so fragmented and complex,” Pierce said. “It has to develop coalitions with health, workforce and education partners and create a system within existing local systems to figure out how to braid funding as well as programs that make sure kids are ready for kindergarten and grade level rading by 3rd grade.

Sean Kuykendall, executive director of community outreach for the Evansville, Indiana YMCA, which provides more than three dozen youth programs in 25 local schools, said he’s working with the local United Way, a community foundation and local non-profit to start building such a system.

The Evansville YMCA participates in the national Y’s Achievement Gap Initiative, which supports school readiness, summer learning, after-school and in-school programs in nearly 200 affiliates nationwide.

In Evansville, the YMCA provides a literacy-enriched six-week full day summer program for children entering first through third grade, Kuykendall said. It wants to make sure student served by that program are supported during the school year by United Way-sponsored after school programs as well as with community-based adult tutor and mentoring programs.

 “Our United Way is streamlining funding to prioritize collective benefit and get folks outside their box to do mutual outcomes,” Kuykendall said. “We have seen significant growth in organizations partnering together and sharing resources and sharing money."


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