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Only days into the 2013 Legislative session, it became obvious to those eyeing the halls of the state Capitol it would be the year of Education Reform. With the passage of the governor’s bill, immediate steps were taken to improve student achievement, but some steps couldn’t be implemented so quickly. Legislators are still learning how they can help improve early childhood education in West Virginia.
The most critical years in learning come from birth to the third grade. That’s what members of the National Governor’s Association’s Division of Education told state lawmakers this week.
They presented trends and data showing just how crucial these years can be and suggested they become the priority for West Virginia’s education system moving forward.
Albert Wat is a senior policy analyst for the division.
“All of this is to say that the first 8 years, based on these data and trends and based on what we know about brain development, is extremely important in terms of setting a foundation, either weak or strong, in terms of success,” he told lawmakers Wednesday.
Wat presented data on early education from across the country to the Joint Committee on Education, starting with graduation rates. Nationwide, Wat said 22 percent of low-income students fail to graduate by the age of 19.
“The good news is that if kids of any income levels are proficient at reading by third grade, so for low income kids if they’re proficient in reading by third grade,” he said, “their rates of not graduating by the age of 19, so the failure rate if you want to call it that, basically is reduced by half.”
Wat’s data shows the rate drops to 11 percent for low income kids, and from 6 percent to just 2 percent for children from higher income families.
The data supports the importance of meeting that benchmark, unfortunately, Wat said it’s not being met across the country. At least not yet.
“The bad news is that even though that’s such an important benchmark, in our nation two-thirds of our fourth graders are not performing at a proficient level in terms of reading,” he said.
That very benchmark, for a child to be proficient in reading by the third grade, was set forth as a goal for the state by Governor Tomblin earlier this year when he signed the education reform bill.
Even though there is a strong focus on reading, Wat said STEM—science, technology, engineering and math education—are still priorities.
“There’s a little bit of a lag in terms of policy, but there’s a lot of research about how much kids can learn in the early years, before third grade even before kindergarten, in terms of math that we’re not taking advantage of,” Wat said.
“The way that we’re training teachers and the curriculum we’re using is really dumbing down the content that kinds can learn.”
It extends beyond the reading, writing, and math that are traditionally taught in school. Wat said today, effective teachers are learning to teach kids at these young ages more cognitive, critical thinking and even emotional lessons to educate the whole child.
So how do we provide children a strong education base at a younger age? Wat said it starts with the teachers.
“I think that the notion is that these grades are easy to teach. If you know how to add one plus one, then you should be able to teach math in the first grade which is not true,” he said. “So, I think we need to really need to pay more attention to the quality of instruction in these grades.”
The way to do that, Wat said, is with a proper teacher evaluation system, one that is adapted to focus on the needs of early education, and continuous professional development that allows teachers to learn nationwide best practices for young students and put them to use.
But it’s not just teachers. Sarah Silverman, program director of the NGA’s Education Division, said principals play a crucial role as well.
She suggested those overseeing pre-K through third grades should have clinical experience with early grade levels and should be evaluated on how well they are able to assist their teachers in continuing focus on those critical ages.