Education funding equity must start at the early grades

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CTMirror.org

Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell watches students in a science class at East Hartford Middle School during a visit earlier this year.

As Connecticut awaits the decision by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher on the educational equity funding lawsuit, let’s not forget that many of the children in Connecticut’s low-income school districts are starting school (that is, kindergarten) way behind in terms of the knowledge, skills and behaviors needed for elementary school and later academic success. Many are also behind in third grade reading and eighth grade math. And too many do not graduate. We have known that for years.

If the goal is high school graduation and readiness for work and citizenship, trying to remediate students or the schools in our low-income districts at the end of this trajectory is way too late. In fact, it’s a lot like closing the barn door after the horses got out.

“Public education” has two parts – the “public” (i.e., families and citizens) and “education” (i.e., the school system). Families and citizens constitute the “public” and teachers, principals, other administrators and Boards of Education constitute “education.” We all have a role to play.

If we know that third grade reading scores and middle school math scores predict later school success — which predicts graduation from high school — then we need to put additional emphasis and resources at the point in the children’s lives where we can reliably address challenges in students’ early school performance, attendance and behavior challenges. So early schooling matters.

If we know that kindergarten readiness is related to 3rd grade reading, and we know that many poor children are already developmentally behind at the ages of three and four, then early childhood development and early education matters.

The Connecticut Mirror has done a laudable job of articulating the role of trauma and adversity in the lives of families living in poverty in this state. We know that certain conditions contribute to toxic stress in people’s lives and compromise their health and their development. These include living in poverty itself, living with institutional racism (hidden or overt), living without enough nutritious food to last through the month or money to put clean diapers on your baby, or living without stable, safe housing in neighborhoods.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher.

These conditions contribute to developmental delays by the age of three years. They also contribute to knowledge delays and behavior challenges in the preschool years, school “un-readiness” at kindergarten and learning delays throughout elementary school.
If we want to improve educational success among vulnerable, low-income families in Connecticut, the early years of development are where investment can most profitably be made, and where Return on Investment (ROI) has been shown by economists and research to be greatest.

The elementary school years are also a place for investment, especially before reading, math and behavior challenges become solidified. Great teachers are needed here, informed not just by the pedagogy of teaching but by the knowledge of how children’s brains and behaviors develop.

Great elementary school principals are also essential. They can create an environment that supports a true partnership between the schools, the community and its families. This kind of partnership is especially important as a protective factor against the negative power of adversity, trauma and toxic stress.

We have all been reading about the need to give our children grit — the ability to withstand adversity. This is also properly called “resilience,” defined as strength in the face of adversity. The development of resilience rests on the capabilities of and investment in three essential parties — children, their parents and their communities (which include schools and neighborhoods).

When one of these parties is struggling, the other two must become stronger, that is, we must invest in what makes THEM strong. In the case of this lawsuit and in these communities, all three are struggling — children, parents and the schools. Thus investment in one without investment in the others will not yield the result we so dearly want.

Any investment of more money needs to be made wisely, with clear goals, the application of science about human development and teaching, real time changes in behavior and conditions, and public accountability for change.

More money that is not wisely spent or carefully accounted for is akin to closing the door again after the horses have left. More money spent too late in the developmental and learning process for students means we will continue to need to pay for remediation along the K-12 educational trajectory. We can get very good at the former (remediation), but unless we make financial investments at the front of the educational pipeline we will not fix the problem — and, we will not be making wise investments.

Judge Moukawsher must make a decision that is constitutionally lawful and that is also wise. His decision will impact all of us. That is right and fair, since all of us have a part to play as the “public” in public education.

Janice M. Gruendel, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Child Success and a Fellow at the Zigler Center at Yale University.

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