SALT LAKE CITY — Fewer than half of Utah kids are participating in preschool before going to kindergarten, and Utah lawmakers believe more could be done to help young children succeed later in life.
"It's cheaper to spend the money early," said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, chairman of the Education Interim committee, which discussed early childhood education on Wednesday. He said that third grade reading levels are a predictor of judicial system involvement later in a child's life.
But, there's more.
"The brain is a ravenous feeder early on, as it learns how to process the world and develop strengths," said Parker Fawson, the Emma Eccles Jones Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Education at Utah State University, director of Utah's School of the Future and former dean of education at Utah Valley University. "As they become older, the brain probably formats habits that make it more difficult to learn."
He said a child's brain is the most malleable before age 5 or 6.
So, Fawson said, it makes sense for parents and teachers to do what they can in the early years of a chid's life, specifically addressing learning gaps before the third grade.
"Early learning has a profound impact on children's opportunities and really their family's opportunities that come down the road later in life," he said. "Much of what we do in the early years makes a difference."
And parents, Fawson told lawmakers, can't depend on schools to do all the teaching.
"Schooling is not the same as learning," he said. "Hundreds of millions of children attend school but don't develop the foundational knowledge they need to leverage that education."
He said early math and literacy proficiency levels are highly predictive of how kids perform in fifth and sixth grades, and throughout the system, really.
"It really launches them," Fawson said.
Lawmakers heard about a handful of Utah school districts that are working to identify schools where students aren't achieving proficiency in certain topics. In the Davis School District, teachers are being coached and told that the expectation is that everyone succeeds, which seems to be making a difference.
"Having children not proficient in reading by the third grade is unacceptable," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. He wants buy-in from the State Board of Education and programs that they back to make sure learning happens at the student level.
Tracy Gruber, director of child care for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said there are barriers to better outcomes.
The state is limited in the data it has, including for preschool attendance, as all programs aren't required to be licensed. So, there may be more kids going to preschool, but there is no record of it.
Knowing when and at what age they begin schooling, Gruber said, would help inform future district policies. Not to mention, there's a big gap between preschool teacher salaries and kindergarten teacher salaries.
Programs like the Waterford's UpStart, which began as a state-funded pilot program, help to educate at least 10,000 4-year-olds every year for the past 10 or so years. UpStart is a free, online program, done at home, that helps kids enrolled learn how to read.
It is helping to increase the number of kids who succeed at learning and in their long-term educational pursuits.
The Utah State Board of Education prioritizes early learning, providing district-led preschools at a number of schools across the state, as well as Head Start programs. Learning interventions can be made as early as birth for some kids, as certain disabilities can make it more difficult to learn and identifying them early is important.
Parents are encouraged to read to their children every day, but, Gruber said, that task doesn't have to be intimidating. "Simple things done every day … talk, love, play, read, count," she said, can make a difference.
"Early experiences are the cornerstone of lifelong learning," Gruber said.
The Utah Board of Education is "focused on making sure each student is prepared when they leave the education system," said state schools Superintendent Sydnee Dickson. But, she said, kids need a foundation.
"Parents are the first teacher and primary teacher," Dickson said. "It is important that every student has the opportunity to succeed and lead."