The cornerstone of Illinois’ educational strength lies in providing all children a strong, early start in school and in life. How Illinois develops, educates and supports its young children bears directly on the future of the state. Several national measures suggest Illinois ranks as a leading state in providing children, particularly children in need, a strong foundation.

Yet when Advance Illinois recently released its 2012 report card on Illinois public education, early education received for the second time an IncompleteThis was informed by national rankings, enrollment patterns and data when available on dozens of key metrics. Significant information gaps persist in early education, however, that, as a state, we must address if we are to target resources and services to the students most in need of early support.

Providing a strong, early start to young children is one of the state’s most powerful opportunities to close the achievement gap before it begins, and we collectively must build upon our early work in this area.

First, however, I would offer some context for the grade and direction for how Illinois might fill the information gaps that continue in early education.

New information on kindergarten readiness

Illinois improved access to early education during the past decade and today enrolls 20 percent of 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs, making Illinois a leading state in this effort. The rate of growth slowed recently, however, as the economy worsened and state funding declined. Unfortunately, fewer children may be served in the coming year due to a $25 million cut to the state’s early childhood block grant this year.

National research suggests that before they even begin kindergarten, 4-year-olds who live in poverty are nearly 14 months behind their classmates. But in Illinois, when students arrive in kindergarten – the front door of the K-12 education system – the state knows little about where they stand cognitively, emotionally and socially. This critical information would help educators target resources and supports that students need early in their academic lives. As importantly, information about students’ kindergarten readiness encourages families to engage sooner and in smarter ways.

The good news is this fall, Illinois piloted a developmentally-appropriate kindergarten readiness measure that is expected to roll out statewide in 2015-16. This is not a paper and pencil test. And this is not about high-stakes exams. This is about giving teachers tools, training and a common language to observe and describe student development and identify what we need to do – as educators, as parents, as adults – to meet them where they are.

The lack of clarity about student readiness is not the only information gap that constrains Illinois’ early education efforts.

As a state, we know little about the quality of children’s early education experiences, the demographic and economic backgrounds of students served in state-funded programs and whether students eligible for bilingual early education instruction, in fact, receive the services that state law now requires. Such information would help identify gaps and target resources at a time when Illinois has finite amounts of them.

Because of this critical information gap, Advance Illinois assigned the state an incomplete for early education, as it did two years ago in The State We’re In: 2010.  (Illinois’ K-12 and postsecondary education systems received a C- and C+ respectively.)

Notably, Illinois held its ground as student poverty increased.  The next step is to ensure that more students achieve at high level.  Illinois faces a real challenge in determining how best to develop and support its youngest children, particularly those born in poverty.

Whether supported by research or our own observations, we know the early years provide the best window to eliminate the achievement gap before it takes root. This is vital if the state is to improve academic outcomes and opportunities for all students.

Reading by 4th grade essential

The hard truth is Illinois is not getting the majority of students where they need to go, and this fact has not changed in the past decade. When Advance Illinois looked at key milestones in a student’s academic life, we found that one-third of students succeed. For the rest, the education system simply isn’t working.

This is particularly striking in 4th grade. One-third of Illinois 4th-graders read proficiently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, and decades of research suggests this is one of the most powerful predictors of future success. Students who do not transition from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn by this point often fall further behind and are at greater risk of dropping out.

The trend continues throughout the state’s education system. For every 100 Illinois students who begin high school, for instance, less than one-third will go on to earn a two- or four-year degree.

As a state, we cannot wait until high school to intervene. The good news is we’re not.

For the first time in a long time, Illinois has a broad reform plan that aims to strengthen the education system from the early years through college graduation day. This requires building upon initiatives that enroll more children in early education programs, creating a developmentally-appropriate method to gauge student development early in their schooling, providing school report cards that help families understand how schools and districts serve students and how to engage in their child’s education as well as raise expectations for students and educators alike.

Lasting improvement takes time and the impact on student achievement does not happen overnight. Funding cuts made in recent years exacerbate what already is challenging work. But Illinois is on its way and can succeed.

As a state, we all have work to do.

Robin M. Steans is executive director of Advance Illinois.

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