A crisis call for Illinois

To the Erikson community,

With 76 percent of Illinois kindergartners deemed “not ready” when starting school, we are clearly failing children in our state. Other states, albeit with different metrics and readiness definitions, have generally found that approximately half of their children are ready for kindergarten, and even that figure is cause for alarm. This crisis must be addressed throughout the first five years of life, when the gaps in school success actually emerge, through a system of support for infant and child development that starts well before preschool.

Illinois’ recently released Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) data should help dispel the myth that our problem with educational outcomes is due to our schools. Recent research shows that, on the whole, schools achieve academic growth increases of one grade level for each year in school. In fact, Chicago Public Schools does even better, with the highest growth rate in the country of any large school system. By and large, schools are doing the job they were designed for — educating our children one grade level per year. However, schools are not able to close academic disparities whose roots reach back to birth. Simply put, our schools cannot solve the readiness problem, although implicitly we tell them that it is their responsibility.

The state’s alarming data should be our wake-up call to the fact that school success begins with investments as early in life as possible. We must start with infants and toddlers, especially those living in families and communities challenged by poverty, racism and violence. But our crisis of school readiness is not confined to these communities. The poor results in Illinois were spread across middle- and upper-income districts as well.

To improve school readiness, Illinois needs to create an overall system of support for our youngest children and their families. Simply adding preschool for 4-year-olds, while necessary, is far from sufficient. If we want our children to be ready for kindergarten, then we need an accessible and equitable system to support parents by providing paid parental leave and a universal basic income, along with home visiting programs, high quality infant and toddler child care, tax credits that help parents afford high quality services, and then universal preschool for 3- and 4 year-olds.

Because the non-profit I lead, Erikson Institute, is situated in Chicago and works with families in communities impacted by our city’s violence, my colleagues and I are particularly horrified at the level of trauma so many young children are exposed to in our neighborhoods. In Chicago, over half of our children under the age of 5, more than 102,000, live in a community that experienced over 4 murders in 2017. We know that, even if an infant or child does not witness a murder, they are deeply affected by the stress and fear experienced by the adults around them. If parents and caregivers are stressed, anxious and fearful, then infants and children are too, and that stress negatively impacts their developing brains.

This reality makes it all the more pressing to have a systemic and whole child approach to school readiness. We have to think more broadly about a child’s development than just literacy and numeracy, and fully support their social and emotional development, if we want that child to be ready for school. The evidence is clear, to address educational achievement gaps, we must prevent them from emerging in the first place.

We only have 1,825 days from birth until a child’s 5th birthday, when they start kindergarten. This is not a lot of time, and we must use it well to build a firm foundation that sets every child up for educational success.

Sincerely,

Geoffrey A. Nagle, PhD
President and Chief Executive Officer
Erikson Institute