BY CHARLES W. PATRICK
If children are the future, South Carolina's future is very much a matter of concern. According to the national Kids Count 2013 survey, our state's children rank 45th out of 50 in overall wellness. A quarter of our children live in poverty. A third of our third graders can't meet minimum math standards. Just a quarter of fourth graders read "proficiently." Their success, as a cohort, is far from assured, and as a result, neither is the success of our state.
Children in South Carolina have a wide range of educational experiences prior to first grade. Some have enjoyed high-quality child care with rich learning environments and a robust kindergarten experience. Others have had limited educational experiences, without ever having seen a book, counted to 10 or interacted with other children. The gap between their cognitive abilities is vast.
We know that education is the key to lifetime success, and that the key to education is early childhood development. Study after study demonstrates that the learning architecture of young brains develops before age six. As the brain grows, the quality of the architecture establishes either a sturdy or fragile foundation for the development and behavior that follow. Getting this right at the beginning of life is smarter and less expensive than fixing it later, or repairing the resulting societal damage.
To cite just one study, the Partnership for America's Economic Success found that an investment of $6,692 in one child's early education produces a return of $66,937 over his lifetime. Research by the states of Maryland, Hawaii and Arkansas have yielded similar findings.
There are many proposals before our Legislature to improve early childhood education so that children enter first grade "school ready." But without any measurement around school readiness, or even a common definition of school readiness, our legislators are being asked to make important policy decisions without the tools to measure their success. Presently, multiple pieces of legislation and the governor's 2014 budget call for the establishment of a school readiness assessment.
We need a standardized statewide definition of school readiness and an assessment tool that can be used with every child, whether they are in private or public kindergarten or none at all. Parents and schools need to know in advance of a child's entry into first grade, whether he or she is equipped with the skills required to succeed in school. The data that are generated by the adoption of a school readiness assessment can be used to judge the quality of early childhood programs and allow for the improvement of the early childhood learning experience. If a child is found to be lacking in the necessary skills for school, teachers can ensure that the child receives individualized instruction in the areas in which he or she is deficient.
A school readiness standard is supported by a host of statewide groups including our local Trident United Way, United Ways statewide, the Institute for Child Success, The Children's Trust, South Carolina Children's Hospital Collaborative and many more. Research is clear and unequivocal about the correlation between school readiness, third grade reading and math scores, and ultimately high school graduation and life success.
Trident United Way understands that what gets measured gets done. As part of its community investment strategy, all programs receiving funds must measure their effectiveness. The same philosophy should be applied to the critical issue of preparing our children to succeed in life.
The common-sense proposal supported by Trident United Way would measure five domains of readiness: approaches to learning, social and emotional development, mathematics, language and literacy, physical development and health.
Business leaders in the state are increasingly concerned about early childhood education. They recognize that tomorrow's workforce must be ready for future jobs that will keep South Carolina competitive in the global economy. The state Chamber of Commerce, for example, has established as a 2020 goal that 80 percent of at-risk children complete pre-kindergarten.
South Carolina would not be breaking ground with this approach. Roughly half the states have a standardized definition of school readiness and metrics to guide policy. Prior to 2001, our state administered the Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery to incoming first graders. The results were used to guide teacher instruction and meet children's individual learning needs.
The South Carolina Readiness Assessment was implemented up until 2008 when an amendment to the Education Accountability Act eliminated the readiness assessment requirement from the law.
Nothing replaces good parenting, of course. Parents must be actively involved in the healthy development of their children by reading to them daily, ensuring regular check-ups, promoting physical activity and social interactions, and providing good nutrition. But there is something all of us can do to promote high quality early childhood education - and by extension a healthy economy - in our state.
Visit tuw.org to learn how you can contact lawmakers in Columbia and send the message that you support the establishment of a statewide definition of school readiness, and a statewide school readiness assessment tool. Good policy must be built on real data.
We need a smarter early childhood policy for a better and brighter future for everyone in South Carolina.
Charles W. Patrick, a senior member of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman, LLC, is board chair of Trident United Way.
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