In summary

We have to recognize that education-related inequities begin before children enter the classroom.

By Kara Dukakis, Special to CalMatters

Kara Dukakis is a senior program officer at Tipping Point Community, which fights poverty by funding nonprofits in the Bay Area, kdukakis@tippingpoint.org.

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The ongoing debate over whether and how to reopen schools this year has cast a necessary light on inequities among schoolchildren. 

Due to historic and systemic racism, Black and Brown children are more likely to lack technology resources and home situations that make remote education viable. As we must find solutions to these challenges, we also have to recognize that education-related inequities begin far before children even enter the classroom – inequities that also must be addressed.

Research shows that children of color and children from households with low income start their public education with fewer skills than their white, more resourced peers. And children who enter kindergarten less ready to learn score lower on third- and eighth-grade test scores, and are less likely to master basic academic and social skills by age 11.

“Readiness” is about literacy and numeracy knowledge, but also refers to things like the ability to listen and ask questions, express thoughts and communicate with others, and demonstrate some self-regulation. If we can identify the neighborhoods in which young children who aren’t yet ready for school life, we can help them get ready by providing early learning opportunities, and access to other environments and experiences that support emotional growth and attachment.

Here’s the problem and the opportunity: In California, we don’t have a uniform system for measuring school readiness. Fewer than half our counties collect data on kindergarten readiness, and they use different tools and methods to do so. With spotty data at the county level, and no statewide data to provide a full picture of the education system, we are hampered from making the changes that could eliminate disparities in school readiness and achievement statewide.

The California counties that do collect kindergarten readiness data have used it in inspiring ways. One school district found its young children lagging behind in the areas of fine and gross motor skills, and revamped a preschool playground specifically to develop these skills. Another used the data to support a local ballot initiative aimed at increasing wages for childcare providers and adding more preschool slots, to address a shortage of providers and preschool spaces.

States, too, use readiness data for big changes. In Washington, officials used readiness data to highlight issues of racial inequity and gaps in access to preschool experiences across districts, which led to creating professional development resources for preschool and kindergarten teachers, and education materials for parents statewide. In Maryland, readiness data is regularly reported to the legislature, which uses it to make policy decisions about early childhood programs.

If California were to allocate funding for all counties to collect kindergarten readiness data, these counties could engage in planning efforts grounded by relevant, recent statistics; place additional resources in neighborhoods and communities that need them most; and help early childhood educators and school districts collaborate to close learning gaps. 

The state could pool the data to get a full picture of its education system, including child care and preschool, and use it to make policies that reduce disparities in readiness and achievement that stack the deck against our Black, Brown and lower-income children at an early age.

It’s time to seize this moment of national reckoning, which has laid bare the deep racism embedded in our systems, including our education system, and make bold moves toward equity. 

Identifying barriers to educational success that begin in early childhood, so that we may dismantle them, is crucial. Including a statewide kindergarten readiness measurement into California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care is a strong step in the right direction.

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