Massachusetts fares very well in the just-published State Trends in Well-Being: Kids Count Data Book 2014, placing first in education, second in healthcare, and first overall. Published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report considers four indices: economic well-being; education; health; and family and community.
But even for a state at the head of the pack, there’s a long way to go. Despite its high standing, the Massachusetts numbers reveal substantial deficits:
- 213,000 children (15%) live in poverty
- the parents of 414,000 children (30%) lack secure employment
- 62,000 children (42%) don’t attend pre-school
- 435,000 children (32%) live in single-parent families
Although only about half of its students are performing well, Massachusetts rates first in 4th grade reading and 8thgrade mathematics scores relative to the other states: 53 percent are not proficient in reading, 45% are not proficient in math. The rates nationally are 66% for both reading and math.
In an overview of current demographics and performance criteria, the report notes that although there are substantial differences among ethnic and racial groups, the achievement gap increasingly reflects socioeconomic differences rather than racial or ethnic variation. Twenty-three percent of children in the United States live in poverty (in 2012 this meant $23,283 or less for a family of two adults and two children).
Issued annually since 1992, the report emphasizes that health, family, and economic circumstances are more influential than education in improving individuals’ long-term prospects: “Schools can make a difference at the margins, but they cannot overcome the vast cognitive and social-emotional development differences between high- and low-income children that are already entrenched by the time kids enter kindergarten.” On the other hand, early education can make a critical difference: “…the research is unequivocal that high-quality early childhood programs, along with other forms of early intervention, are essential for building a strong educational foundation for low-income children and narrowing the achievement gap.”
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“Massachusetts now needs to move on more concrete plans to extend quality early childhood education to all 4-year-old children.”
– Healthy People/Health Economy Annual Report Card 2014, The Boston Foundation
Early childhood education gets special attention in the new Healthy People, Healthy Economy Annual Report Card just issued by the Boston Foundation in partnership with the Network in Health Innovation. Recognizing that “most recent studies suggest that early childhood is the single most profound influence on a person’s health, well-being and even lifelong earnings,” the Report Card for 2014 announces a new indicator that will track progress in establishing universal high-quality early child care in the state.
The Report Card expresses concern about the percentage of the Commonwealth’s budget that is consumed by health care−more per capita than any other state−and suggests that the only way to shift spending is to improve citizens’ health at both ends of the age spectrum. The report lauds the state’s recent efforts to create universal pre-K but gives it an ‘incomplete’ on outcomes. Access to quality preK is often inaccessible for at-risk and low-income families. In terms of state funding, the state spends less today than it did in 2001 and only one-third of 3- and 4-year olds receive some form of public support for early education. On the other hand, compared to other states, Massachusetts has maintained its investment in early childhood education.
Other than the federally regulated Child and Adult Care Food Program, there is no accountability for nutrition in early childhood settings, according to the Report Card. Credit is given to Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children for our “Eating to Learn” project, committed to education, outreach, and advocacy in support of better early childhood nutrition. You can learn more about “Eating to Learn” here.
Some interesting statistics shared in the Report Card include:
- Thirty percent of children entering first grade are overweight or obese
- 14 percent of the state’s 5-year-olds do not have access to full-day kindergarten.
- Only 32% of Boston students attend weekly physical education classes.
In addition to universal pre-K for all 4-year olds, it recommends establishing standards for nutrition, physical activity, and screen time. The Report Card evaluates twelve other indicators but stresses that “investment in childhood education and health may be the single most significant effective way to reduce health problems over the course of a lifetime.”
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“The early educator is the cornerstone of the Rigorous and Regulated (R2) learning environment. To cultivate and sustain the R2 environment, she must undertake the daily physical, emotional, and mental labor required of early childhood education.”– Brief #3, Lead Early Educators for Success
Early childhood educators need one-on-one interaction as much as their students do. This is one of many lessons offered by the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The series of ten one-page briefs, entitled Lead Early Educators for Success, promotes an “R2 learning environment” that is both Rigorous and Regulated, with priority on teaching socio-emotional and academic skills in an atmosphere that is calm, consistent, and appropriate.
Brief #2 describes how reform measures intended to improve the classroom environment can be counter-productive for children and educators. For instance, moving students among classes to improve teacher/student ratios can lead to a diminished community, less predictability, and an atmosphere in which the educator’s role become more custodial.
As the mainstay of the R2 classroom the educator needs four main competencies, according to Brief #3: executive function, emotion regulation, relational/interpersonal, and talk for learning. A classroom example diagrams the choices one teacher made to express each competency while supporting a child who had made a mess at the classroom’s science activity station.
Professional development can inhibit – rather than improve – classroom practice when the focus is on credentialing and accumulating hours, according to Brief #4. A supportive Professional Learning Community, small, focused, ongoing, and part of a long-term plan, is critical to successful implementation of new training. A second critical element is Connected Coaching, which is characterized in Brief #5 by ongoing observation and individualized, reflective discussion and feedback. The authors emphasize the necessity of on-site application supported by continuing exchange with both the team and the individual coach.
The final three briefs are devoted to the process of implementing reform effectively through five steps: notice and document; reflect and analyze; build knowledge; plan; and try. These are each described in detail in Brief #8. Examples of how the process has worked in the field are given in the final briefs. According to the authors, preliminary research from R2 classrooms indicates that “Children enrolled in the participating educators’ classrooms demonstrated significantly higher performance on measures of literacy (e.g., alphabet knowledge) and social-emotional skills (e.g., impulse control) when compared to their same-age peers in the setting studied, and to those in other similar settings in the region.”
Want to try something new? For free? From June 27th to August 29th, Sixty-seven Massachusetts museums, arts centers, and aquariums are each open for free on one summer Friday. They include the JFK Presidential Library & Museum (7/11), the Ocean Explorium in New Bedford (7/18), the Greenway Carousel (8/8), and Plimoth Plantation (8/15).
This is the sixth year that the Highland Street Foundation has subsidized area attractions to make them available to the wide public. Everybody who shows up on the particular Friday that the venue is free will be admitted – except in a couple of places, like the Boston Harbor Islands National Park, where capacity is limited. Parking is not included.
Established in 1989 by the late David J. McGrath, Jr., the Highland Street Foundation’s mission is to provide family and children in Massachusetts and California access to education, housing, mentorship, health care, the environment, and the arts. Free Fun Fridays started with ten participating institutions. Last summer there were 60 locations – and 165,000 Friday visitors.
Follow the link to the calendar of free attractions.