The Effects of Early Learning
We have come to a pivotal point in education. The effects of early learning have consistently shown that children who do not have a strong start will continue to lag behind and encounter major barriers in the latter grades. Data from early grades have been powerful predictors of achievement and outcomes. Therefore, strong foundational skills in reading, math, and writing are fundamental for successes in high school, college, and in the workplace.
"Empirical evidence shows the difficulty of catching students up in the middle and high school. Several studies have explored the importance of preparation prior to eighth grade for students to have a reasonable chance of meeting college readiness benchmarks by the end of high school." (ACT Research and Policy, College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning (PDF), page 2). According to ACT, only 10 percent of students who are off track by 8th grade have a chance of being college and career-ready by 12th grade (and only 3 percent in mathematics). This shows the importance of preparing students in the early grades with a well-defined curriculum. This curriculum should include well-designed reading and mathematics instruction. Reading should consist of students being able to decode words and understand the words they read. In addition, students should be able to understand the relationship between letters and sounds and develop basic comprehension skills from conversation and prior background knowledge. This development takes time, which makes it harder to close large gaps in the upper grades and why it is so crucial to make sure students have mastered these fundamentals early. The early years are also the time when children's interests and curiosities are heightened. It is our jobs as educators to build upon these interests and curiosities to keep children actively engaged in the learning process as they go through the upper grades. A well-designed curriculum should also include basic skills in mathematics. Mathematics should consist of students being able to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide—life-long skills that are important—as well as a development of concrete and abstract skills. These well-defined curricula include having high-quality teachers with specialized training from quality teacher programs.
As educators, we must address all aspects of early learning, including children who are part of limited learning environments. We need to make sure disadvantaged children from poor, socioeconomic backgrounds are getting the interventions and monitoring needed to prepare them for successes at all grades. Not closing the education gaps in the early grades will impose a permanent national recession on the United States because economically we will not be able to sustain ourselves. This economic downturn will include lower earnings and income, poorer health, and higher rates of incarceration. According to McKinsey, "If the United States had closed the academic achievement gap so that between 1983–1998, the performance of students from families with income below $25,000 a year had been raised to the performance of students from homes with incomes above $25,000 a year, then the GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher or 3 to 5 percent of GDP (17)."
The greatest investment we can make now is in our nation's human potential. That potential rests with our youth, the future generation. Investing in early learning at the national, state, and local level will have lasting benefits for the nation as a whole.
Dianna Minor is a former classroom teacher. She currently works as a curriculum and instruction specialist in Alabama and as a consultant with American College Testing (ACT). She is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, and National Education Association. Connect with Minor by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @diminordan.