Opinion Extra

Noble: Ready to learn?

School's back in session. In Richland County that means close to 5,000 new students have entered the educational pipeline at kindergarten. Will they succeed? How many start out behind and never catch up? How many will drop out?

It won't take too long before those questions are answered. This time next year, 250-300 of this year's kindergartners will be back in the same classroom. In all, 1,250 to 1,500 students in 4K to third grade will be repeating the grade they are now entering - just in Richland County.

Every challenge facing educators can trace its roots back to early education. Getting children ready to learn is the educational equivalent of the manufacturing industry insisting that the raw materials are of the highest quality. Good parts, assembled and processed well, make a good product. Without good parts, you have production errors and problems with quality control.

In manufacturing, you can pull the defective product off the assembly line. In education, you can't.

One costly side-effect of our state's lack of high-quality early education is that too many children are not promoted from one grade to the next. If this occurs more than once, it's the equivalent of an educational death sentence; the probability of dropping out soars. Of course the probability of dropping out also soars with social promotion without academic remediation.

No win ... no win.

Statewide, retention through third grade is between 5 percent and 6 percent. The cost of sending these students back through the same grade again is a staggering $100 million, every year. What a waste in terms of human cost and resource cost.

What can we do about it? How do we reduce this rate of early failure? Let's start by agreeing on what constitutes "ready to learn."

Academics is important; however, the most critical success factors related to school readiness are listening, sharing, controlling impulses, resolving conflict. In other words, good social skills such as just getting along with others and emotional readiness for self-control. (You can find our report on the topic, "School Readiness Declaration," at www.rcfirststeps.org.)

If you have difficulty believing or understanding this, then listen to an early childhood educator: "If I had three wishes, I'd wish for social skills, emotional regulation and parental understanding and support. A child who is encouraged and supported by parents, able to identify and appropriately control her emotions and who has the ability to work both independently and with others is ready to learn....

"If I could have this, I know I could teach every child, and when they leave kindergarten, they will be ready for first grade."

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, well-known pediatrician and child advocate, and his colleague Dr. Stanley Greenspan have delineated the "seven irreducible needs ... the kinds of care without which children cannot grow, learn and thrive." These needs all come to roost on relationships, on nurturing, on growing up with good social and emotional balance. These come first: "Young children need adults who model for, teach and guide children to get along with others, who gently support their efforts to control their own behaviors in appropriate ways, who encourage creativity and exploration, and who play right alongside them."

The majority of young children spend most of their waking hours in out-of-home child care. You achieve significant momentum for learning with world-class child care centers and parent resource centers, with a focus on birth to 3 years of age, when brain development is most rapid and learning capacity is established, and with universal, voluntary high-quality 4-year-old kindergarten.

We need to be sure that all children are ready to learn, so that our teachers can teach and help the students achieve their God-given, parent/teacher-influenced potential.

Consider this quote from Jenny Lindon, an internationally recognized early childhood educator: "A skilled five year old grows from a busy four year old, a curious three year old, a cuddled two year old, an adventurous one year old and a communicative baby."

Getting children ready to learn is a moral imperative. It's the right thing to do for all the right reasons.