The Kids Can’t Read
Time for Education to Start at Birth—Not Kindergarten
BY TIM MUNKEBY
There might be nothing more important in a child’s life than to read proficiently.
That’s right, READ.
Without literacy, and school systems formulated to achieve it, the problems that plague our society—crime, violence, mental health issues, poverty, and homelessness to name a few—will only worsen.
That’s my dire prediction.
I spent 13 years as a junior and senior high school English teacher in Minnesota, and although I’ve been out of the classroom for a while now, I remain a committed educator at heart.
I also firmly believe that improving literacy, and thus society, can indeed be done—with just a few important fixes.
South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu wrote what I believe to be one of the most profound metaphors of all time: “There comes a point where we have to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Well, if we go all the way upstream, you know where we start? At birth, or even before. That’s often where the problems also start—and where the solutions can begin, too.
Members of the child advocacy group Doctors for Early Childhood wrote a June 2023 opinion piece in the Minneapolis StarTribune in which they advocated for “babies and toddlers” to “get what they need for optimal brain development” in order to “arrive at pre-school and kindergarten well prepared and ready to learn.”
But unfortunately, the doctors claimed that too many kids today are getting nothing near the brain development they need to learn, read, and succeed in school—and then, of course, in life.
This is not the kids’ fault.
American social reformer Frederick Douglas famously said, “It’s easier to raise strong children than repair broken [adults].” Isn’t it obvious it’s the broken men and women we’re constantly pulling out of the river?
Doctors for Early Childhood leaders believe the education achievement gap appears as early as age one. That means that we must go all the way upstream to raise strong children and eliminate education gaps, opportunity gaps, income gaps, wage gaps…
Doctors need to be more proactive in ensuring that new mothers have proper nutrition so their babies are born with healthy brains, and that parents are provided with books and instruction on how their children’s brains develop.
The children most in dire need are, of course, those children living in poverty. Too many of these kids have never been read to, and some haven’t even had books in the home—if they have a home. They desperately need an advocate.
But as public affairs consultant Tim Reardon opined in the StarTribune this past April, “There are 500,000 K-12 students in Minnesota who are not reading proficiently. If you lined them up all holding hands, they would stretch from here to Chicago.”
How will that affect future generations? The most grievous consequences:
* 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the criminal justice system in the U.S. are functionally illiterate, according to Reardon. Much has been researched and written lately about our criminal justice system failing to rehabilitate our kids, but according to doctors and early childhood educators, they were failed long before they became juvenile offenders.
Hennepin County, Minnesota District Judge Tanya Bransford says many parents are frustrated and don’t know what to do when law enforcement or the courts can’t or won’t provide mental health or other support services for their kids to be appropriately assessed, educated and treated.
* 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons read below a fourth grade level. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure, delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.”
If we want to efficiently deal with crime and poverty and all the social ills associated with them, we need to go upstream and ensure that literacy is proficient for every child by the third grade.
But, if 500,000 students in Minnesota alone aren’t reading efficiently at their grade level, this goes well beyond just those living in dire poverty. If you need a visual: 500,000 would fill up Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium (home of the Vikings, with a seating capacity of 66,860) nearly seven and a half times. That’s a lot of kids!
There’s something happening here, and it’s perfectly clear: too many kids at all levels at every socioeconomic level aren’t being read to and prepared for school. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, about half of the nation’s fourth graders scored below proficient on a widely administered reading evaluation in 2022, even lower than 2019.
Kim Gibbons, the director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, tells us if a child isn’t reading proficiently by grade three—called “the third-grade gate”—the child is much more likely to get poor grades throughout the rest of primary and secondary education; the student is also more likely to be truant, drop out of school, need special education, have discipline problems, and even enter the juvenile justice system.
If kids read poorly, they likely will fall behind other students, affecting their self-esteem. They may see themselves as “stupid.” And who wants to go somewhere every day where they’re made to feel stupid? Wouldn’t this possibly affect your behavior and school attendance?
So, with literacy comes improved behavior and likely less truancy. Children would learn more effectively, succeed and stay in school, and become productive students and members of society.
There are a growing number of organizations in Minnesota and nationally, such as Reading Corps, that are providing trained volunteer tutors to individually assist kindergarten, first, second, and third graders to not only gain proficiency and successfully pass through the third-grade gate, but to progress far beyond it. Still, not every kid benefits or succeeds with the help. They, naturally, would have been better served if they’d been prepared before kindergarten.
If kids have no or little brain stimulation during the first few years of their lives, the doctors tell us it might be too late to effectively start the process in kindergarten. According to Doctors for Early Childhood, 90 percent of brain development happens by age five.
Teachers like myself have long been aware that learning, such as learning to read, is a sequential building process. Each new skill that children learn throughout their lives is built on the foundation of previously mastered skills.
Through no fault of their own, left behind children, especially but not only those living in poverty, end up lacking those foundational skills and knowledge. Over their entire lives, their lack of early learning opportunities stacks the deck against them.
As student literacy decreases, not coincidentally, student behavior problems at all levels of school, in all grades, are increasing. According to survey results published by Education Week this past spring, 70 percent of educators—including 1,058 teachers, principals, and district leaders—say students in their schools are misbehaving more now compared with the fall of 2019. I’ve personally been hearing horror stories.
I asked a middle school teacher and coach, who was once a student of mine, if student behavior today is as bad as the statistics suggest. “Horrible, just horrible,” she responded. “And when you call the parents, it’s always our fault, the teacher’s fault.
Many teachers are leaving the profession because of this. Nearly half of the nation’s public education employees working in elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutions who left in March of this year resigned, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many, remarkably, don’t feel safe in their classrooms anymore. In May, a survey of St. Paul, Minnesota school staff members revealed that a majority feel unsafe in the city’s high schools. Nearly 80 percent said they’d witnessed or experienced physical violence and they felt neither equipped to deal with the situation nor supported by school administrators.
The school district in which I live, which is very diverse, endured 19 “retirements” this year. That’s an alarming number. We’re already facing a worsening teacher shortage in the United States as school districts struggle to hire new teachers. It’s very hard to teach effectively and have job satisfaction if you’re simply disciplining and babysitting, especially if you’re getting no support from parents.
I find this to be incredibly disturbing. And I would hope you do, too.
We must re-imagine our public school system because we continue to educate children much the same way it was done back in the Little House on the Prairie days, when families still sat down together at the dining room table for meals. In those days, the kids went off to the schoolhouse to quietly and dutifully learn their three ‘R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic.
Expectations were that respect, empathy, compassion, and kindness were learned or taught by the family back in the Little House days. But the family dynamic has changed a trifle since then:
* Nearly 78 percent of women ages 25-54, common ages for being mothers, are now in the workforce—an all-time high in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
* 67 percent of children in the U.S. under the age of six have “all parents working,” according to Statista, a global data and business intelligence platform.
Nothing inherently wrong with this, but both statistics imply potentially less time for parenting and likely more stress on parents.
Furthermore, the U.S. now has the highest rate of children living in single-parent households in the world, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study. These kids are five times more likely to live in poverty, nine times more likely to drop out of school, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.
More and more of the middle class seems to be falling into a subsistence mode. According to new research released in a June report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Making Caring Common Project, about one-third of all teens have a parent suffering from reported anxiety or depression. “While 18 percent of teens reported suffering anxiety, about 20 percent of mothers and 15 percent of fathers reported anxiety,” the report concluded. “While 15 percent of teens reported depression, about 16 percent of mothers and 10 percent of fathers did, too…Almost 40 percent of teens also reported being at least ‘somewhat worried’ about the mental health of at least one of their parents.”
If a parent or parents are constantly worried about making enough money to pay the mortgage or rent, and put food on the table, they’re much less likely to have the capacity to strive for self-actualization—like ensuring that their child is read to and prepared for school.
A new study from CNBC and Momentive this past April revealed that a troubling 70 percent of Americans are struggling with financial pressures due to increasing costs and stagnant wages. They most often cite high interest rates, lack of savings, medical bills, credit card debt, student loans, and living paycheck to paycheck as major factors.
So, what’s perfectly clear is that people who come from generational poverty, who live in food deserts, who experience food and housing insecurity, who work multiple part time jobs, and who live in communities with gun violence and crime, find it hard to prioritize reading in the midst of chaos. Plus, if parents struggle to read themselves, or are functionally illiterate, there’s no role model or capacity to mentor.
What’s also perfectly clear is that if parents who are not living in poverty don’t read themselves, or spend too much time on phones and devices, that’s what they’re modeling to their children.
If, for one reason or another, parents (rich or poor) aren’t willing or able to read to their children and reinforce values like respect and kindness, they’re not preparing them to be good citizens as students (as well as adults).
So, someone else has to do it.
And the only way to make it fair for all kids, so that they all have the same opportunities, is to create an updated, re-imagined school system—one that starts at birth. Yes, we need to go all the way “upstream!” That’s the only way all kids will be treated equally.
Many school districts have created programs like ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) that do this. But these programs remain under-served and under-funded. Figuring out how we accomplish success with programs like this will necessitate help from our legislators, teachers, enlightened school officials, corporate sponsors, and aware parents and community members.
Can’t afford it, the politicians claim.
But I say rubbish!
We can’t afford to not try.
Maybe because I founded and ran a financial management company after my teaching days ended, I recognize a good investment when I see one.
Art Rolnick, an economist at the University of Minnesota, says his research has found that “every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early-learning programs yields up to $15 in societal benefits. This is primarily due to lower taxpayer costs for programs like special education, social services, income supports, health care, law enforcement and prisons…Conclusion: We should invest limited state funds to help, especially for low-income families, where we can benefit from that amazing 16-to-1 ROI [return-on-investment].”
Not to be outdone, University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, a Nobel laureate and expert in the economics of human development, says his research has found that high quality, early learning investments can yield a 13 percent ROI per child through better education, economic, health, and social outcomes.
We need to make that investment now, rather than spend much more money continually pulling people, broken people, out of the river. It’s the broken people, don’t forget, who are most often involved in crime, or have succumbed to mental illness and homelessness.
Income gaps, opportunity gaps, achievement gaps, and education gaps abound in most states, even the ones you might not expect—such as my home base of liberal, well-to-do Minnesota. In Minnesota, we have the highest ACT scores in the country, but the largest gaps.
So, how can we close them?
I see two ways:
1) Dumb down those high achievers. No reading to them. No books. Absolutely not! No summer camps. No educational games. Uh, uh! No Sesame Street. That’ll close those gaps.
2) Rather than bring the top down, let’s raise the bottom up. Before kindergarten, every child must be read to, and their learning aptitude assessed to identify problems. That way, when they enter elementary school they feel they belong and have an equal chance at success and literacy, even if they’ve lived in poverty.
Minnesota lawmakers made a valiant attempt to bridge the education gaps during their last legislative session. More funds than usual were allocated to K-12 schools, especially in reading and literacy. Some money was allocated to early education scholarships, providing free daycare and Pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) education for their children—for which some will be very grateful.
Prior to this legislation, only about 16,000 of Minnesota’s estimated 51,000 young children living in poverty had received scholarships for early-ed programs, leaving a lot of kids out of luck.
The Minnesota child tax credits, providing families with funds to pay daycare costs, help—but they aren’t sustainable. They could be gone with the next legislature. Scholarships come and go. The consensus among child advocates has been: “Grateful, but not satisfied.”
We need a sustainable solution that doesn’t pick and choose who gets early childhood education help. To be sustainable, I feel Universal Pre-K must be built into all of our reimagined school systems. Every child should enter kindergarten prepared and on equal footing, so ALL kids have a fair chance to succeed and stay in school.
Parents who want to pay other organizations privately for Pre-K can do so, similar to private schooling. But all kids, even if their caregivers don’t have the bucks, need to be prepared for kindergarten. It’s not only fair and just, but the way it should be—must be.
This can be accomplished with help and financial support from businesses in every local community. Corporations have often championed quality pre-school, realizing they benefit from a better prepared workforce. Their funding assistance could go a long way to making this happen.
Also, all teachers must be trained in the science of reading, research that informs how proficient reading and writing develop, why some students have difficulty reading, and how we can most effectively assess and teach reading to improve student outcomes and intervene when reading issues develop.
Volunteering in our communities, like tutoring and advocating, can also help bridge the financing hurdles that our lawmakers claim prevent us from providing every child with free or affordable (on a sliding scale) Pre-K instruction. Wouldn’t it be great if all needy kids, especially children that don’t have a “caring adult” in their lives, had an advocate? Actually, wouldn’t it be remarkable if all kids—city, suburban, rural—had an advocate?
The novel I wrote and published in 2022, The Advocate, suggests a template to accomplish this. It focuses on the lives of Wanda, a single mother living in poverty, her son Marshawn, and their “advocate,” Ryan, a volunteer mentor who helps Marshawn prepare for kindergarten. (Spoiler alert: It turns out to be a rough yet rewarding journey.)
Through this advocacy program, Marshawn qualifies for free, “quality” daycare, so Wanda can continue working her two part-time jobs. “Quality,” meaning not just babysitting, but trained personnel creating educational experiences that stimulate the brain to develop.
Ryan meets with Wanda and Marshawn at least once a week to ensure that Marshawn is read to, individually, outside of daycare, and reinforces that Marshawn learns respect, kindness, empathy and other attributes Marshawn will need to become a good citizen, both as a student and later in life as an adult.
This advocacy becomes beneficial not only to Marshawn, but also to his mother, who starts reading herself. Ryan also benefits, growing tremendously from the experience.
Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, along with retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page, want to pass a constitutional amendment aimed at closing the student achievement gap. They write, “A quality education is, without question, the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty and create a society in which everyone can participate. It doesn’t change just one child’s life. It has the potential to improve the future for generations to come and leads to a more productive, vibrant society for all of us.”
Of course, by “quality” education, Kashkari and Page mean starting school at birth, or as soon as possible.
American inventor, engineer and businessman Charles Kettering once said, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”
With the right kind of educational change, by making it accessible for all kids to start school at birth, I have no doubt that literacy gaps would be closed, and the social ills we lament (crime, violence, mental illness, poverty, homelessness, etc.) would be minimized.
And that would be progress.
Tim Munkeby is available to speak about literacy at schools, colleges, workplaces, events, etc.; he can be reached at . Tim’s novel, The Advocate, is available at www.timmunkeby.com; enter the word advocate in the promo code box to receive a 30 percent discount on bulk orders of 10 or more copies. Tim is also an advisory committee member of The Reporters Inc. and you can read more about him here on our Team page.
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