Feeding children’s brains from birth

Michigan is faced with a serious issue: Children are not reading as well as they should be by the end of third grade, and the results will affect the long-term growth and economic development of our state.

The newly released 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book brings attention to national and state-level data on the well-being of children. Michigan ranks 38th in the education domain in this year’s report, with 69 percent of fourth graders below reading proficiency.

Language and literacy development begins long before a child walks through a classroom door in kindergarten or preschool. It is during the first three years of life that the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth and children begin to acquire the language skills needed to be successful in school.

While Michigan has made great strides in improving access for at-risk 4-year-olds to high quality preschool through the Great Start Readiness Program, and is working toward quality improvements in child care with the Great Start to Quality initiative, Michigan’s child care program is grossly underfunded, creating a gap that is hard to bridge. Rates are so low that many families can’t afford high quality care, and it is difficult to attract and retain high quality providers.

Children in low-income and African-American and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected. We know a quarter of Michigan’s children live in poverty with much higher rates for children of color. More than half of African-American and more than a third of Hispanic children live in poverty. Many of these children are likely to be exposed to fewer words and be behind in literacy skills, so they arrive at school already disadvantaged and busy trying to catch up.

We must work to provide other well-financed supportive initiatives such as intensive summer reading camps, tutoring, smaller classes and reading specialists for the children who need it, to see an increase in academic successes. This is how we can directly address the barriers to learning.

By addressing these learning barriers for low-income children, we can help increase reading proficiency so that more kids can become economically secure as adults, in turn, transforming education and the economy in our state.

Some states have held third graders back if they do not demonstrate proficiency in reading, making them repeat. But holding kids back doesn’t help them (why repeat what they already failed?), nor is it a cost-effective solution for the state. We must intervene long before children reach the third grade by investing in parent education and literacy, improving the quality of child care – especially for infants and toddlers – and making sure caregivers have the skills to foster early literacy.

By doing so, we equip Michigan’s children with what they need to succeed, as mastering reading by 4th grade is a critical factor in determining a child’s success later in school and life. Michigan’s children are its future … it’s time we start to think of how to support them where and when they need the support.

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Thu, 07/31/2014 - 9:56am
Start with prenatal care. Have employers help where possible on quality child care or assistance . Quality childcare in this State and the country is not available for most. Maybe incentivize grandparents in helping to care for their grandchildren. Make it mandatory that no kindergarten class exceed 20 little ones. Put the emphasis on the very very young. R.L.
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 11:12am
Clearly the only solution will be to remove children from their parents at birth, placing them at the new Department of Child Development Rearing Compounds . Here they will be cared for by trained and caring experts seeing to their every need. This is the only way to address the nutritional, cognitive development, socialization and equity/fairness deficits that we have always struggled with in this nation. Parents should/may still be allowed to view their kids via closed circuit cameras and maybe occasional supervised visits on weekends. Then maybe the unending problems our children face will be solved.
Sun, 08/03/2014 - 6:43pm
Yup, that would do it, no doubt. Maybe even do some genetic modification as well-
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 1:15pm
What a boorish comment. This op-ed is looking at ways to address a serious problem, and the recommendations are for voluntary interventions that can actually help children.
Wed, 08/06/2014 - 12:44pm
Yep! If it just wasn't for those pesky human beings!
Charles Richards
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 3:05pm
Ms. Zehnder-Merrell says, " But holding kids back doesn’t help them (why repeat what they already failed?), nor is it a cost-effective solution for the state." If they failed at it, shouldn't they have another opportunity to succeed at it? Does she approve of the all too common practice of passing kids whether or not the have acquired the foundation for the more difficult work in the next grade? Isn't that how we wind up with high school graduates who cannot read? I realize that some people place a very high value on "equality," and don't want kids' self-esteem to be damaged by having it known that they failed a grade, but that will be less damaging to them than learning to have the grit and persistence to succeed.
Chuck Jordan
Fri, 08/01/2014 - 8:19pm
Prenatal care is certainly important. Repeating a grade doesn't work. Provide the reading assistance needed before 3rd grade. More important is to promote a love of reading rather than rote reading programs. Many reading programs make kids hate reading.