earlyreading-badge1-300x300I do not go to the movies to answer life’s questions.  Instead, I prefer the excitement of an espionage talk or the laughs from a comedy. Maybe that is why I enjoyed watching “Back to the Future” with my oldest grandkids last weekend. The 1985 adventures of Marty McFly racing back into the 50’s do not cause deep soul searching, but it did prompt a “cerebral itch.”

As part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation network, Kentucky Youth Advocates was involved in today’s release of the KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot around early reading proficiency. The numbers paint a dismal scene in which only one in three 4th graders meet national proficiency standards for reading. The data in this report are from national standards (NAEP) which are different from Kentucky’s state “reading at grade level” standards.

And while the good news is that Kentucky essentially mirrors national achievement, the bad news is that one in three youngsters being proficient in reading is simply not good enough. Even more troubling is that Kentucky is one of only twelve states in which the reading gap between higher- and lower-income students greatly widened from 2003 to 2013. Given the increased child poverty levels we are seeing across the Commonwealth, reading proficiency simply cannot become a function of economics.

I just wonder what would happen if schools “went back to the future” to help us move forward.

Currently, the web of any state department of education web site; the annual report of most school districts; and, seemingly every issue of every national periodical reveal a singular obsession with what students must learn. Common core. Curricular alignment. Silver bullet pedagogies. Those topics are important for today’s educators. But it is important for schools to go beyond common core and think about factors impacting the learners themselves.

A trip “back to the future” in the 1980s and 1990s would take us to a day when learners’ “development needs” often drove the agenda. Back then, in the opening days of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, Kentucky launched an exciting innovation around ungraded primary classrooms as a direct response to developmental needs. That sea of change in how young children learned drew national attention.

At the same time, Kentucky educators launched a middle school revolution around development characteristics of early adolescents. Later in the 1990s, Ted Sizer and his Coalition of Essential Schools invaded the Commonwealth and tackled secondary school reform by elegantly asking what older adolescents were like rather than creating artificially imposed content.

I am all for academic rigor. I want that for my grandkids and for every young person. But, children in classrooms today often face extreme challenges such as health conditions and family economic instability that impact their ability to learn. There may be no effort that carries more potential to boost reading than if schools paid attention to issues that transcend the schoolhouse door.

With more than one in four Kentucky children living in poverty, it is crucial to help families become financially secure. A state Earned Income Credit is an example of a policy that can help kids get on track academically while families get on track financially.

Early education is also a critical area of importance to put kids on the right track for success. Restored funding for child care assistance, which was recently proposed in the Governor’s budget, will ensure that young children can be cared for in safe, structured environments that will prepare them for kindergarten. Additionally, the Governor proposed expanding the income eligibility for preschool so more children can attend and start kindergarten ready to learn.

Adequate funding for K-12 education is also an important part of ensuring quality instruction for all students. Kentucky education funding has not kept pace with higher expectations for student achievement. The investments in education outlined by the Governor in his budget will truly make an impact on student learning and we commend him for reflecting his commitment to education in the budget allocations he recommends.

Kids face great challenges today. But I believe that focus on learners will lead us forward to a new day of unprecedented academic achievement.