There's a deeply troubling trend missing from our current discourse around education reform in our state: Too many children start behind...

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There’s a deeply troubling trend missing from our current discourse around education reform in our state: Too many children start behind and sadly stay behind in school. This lack of school readiness is an enormous loss of human potential and a high cost to taxpayers.

A scan of the most recent fourth-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning results clearly shows that in many schools serving a disproportionately high number of low-income children, fewer than 10 percent of fourth-graders were able to pass three standards of the WASL. Fewer than 10 percent.

And regardless of the school or district, there continues to be a persistent achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students — fewer than half of our state’s low-income fourth graders were able to pass the WASL math and writing tests last year, trailing non-low-income students by 20 to 30 percentage points.

To argue the point further, we know from an Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) survey of kindergarten teachers that only about 25 percent of low-income children arriving for their first day of school had the social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills these teachers believe are needed to succeed in school. We’re not talking about young children arriving for kindergarten reading literature. We’re talking about children starting on an even playing field — recognizing letters, playing well with others.

What’s missing from our current discourse around education is this simple truth: Children who begin school behind often stay behind. The majority of fourth-graders struggling to meet basic standards today most likely began kindergarten unprepared to learn.

That’s why many of us who are dedicated to improving early learning strategies for our state’s children and families are paying particularly close attention to the fourth-grade scores — they tell us how well our state’s 10-year-olds are prepared for academic achievement and also preview longer-term trend lines for future academic outcomes. These scores provide our first authentic glimpse into how well we have, as a state, prepared our children to learn — and it’s here where we believe we have the most opportunity to make meaningful gains.

Fortunately, policymakers today have 40 years of evidence to guide their decisions to improve outcomes for young learners: Investing in our children’s care and education earlier yields powerful outcomes for every child, regardless of their family’s income. We must begin earlier to work in partnership with parents and caregivers to improve high-quality early learning opportunities that can dramatically improve a child’s chances to succeed in school and in life. Examples include giving parents additional resources and support, improving the quality of child care for children whose parents work outside the home, and expanding access to preschool.

Gov. Christine Gregoire’s recent Washington Learns report, which includes phasing in a quality rating system for our state’s child-care centers and establishing a kindergarten-readiness tool for parents, marks an important milestone toward long-term progress for our state’s youngest residents.

Across our state, we’re seeing tremendous progress when communities dedicate themselves to the merits of early learning. Just five years ago, only 4 percent of kindergartners began school in the Bremerton School District knowing their letters, compared with the national average of 60 percent. That year, the district expanded early learning opportunities for all of its students before they entered school rather than increasing resources for remedial education once a student had fallen behind in later grades. Working in partnership with parents, Head Start providers, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), private and faith-based child-care and preschool providers, Bremerton set out to dramatically increase the number of children entering kindergarten with early reading skills.

The result? Since 2001, Bremerton students have experienced remarkable gains — today, more than 60 percent of kindergartners are equipped with basic student literacy skills, a key component for a wide range of social and emotional skills children should have as they begin school. The district estimates it saves more than $800,000 a year through its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten interventions.

In districts such as Bremerton and Spokane, and in places such as Clark County, we are beginning to see the results of investing in early learning. But most of the school districts in our state lag behind, and that’s why so many of us are committing ourselves to improving our state’s infrastructure to improve access to high-quality early learning for all children. Thrive by Five Washington, a new statewide public-private partnership, is helping to lead this effort.

We both come from families that chose to do business in Washington state because of its long tradition of fostering innovation and championing great ideas in their infancy. When it comes to improving our state’s education system, we have the opportunity to harness that same spirit of innovation by investing in the early promise of each one of our state’s children.

The fourth-grade WASL results convey an important message for all of us: Begin early and our children will hold the building blocks needed to start school ready for lasting achievement.

Jackie Bezos, president of the Bezos Family Foundation, and Kim Ackerley Cleworth, co-founder and partner of Ackerley Partners, LLC, and executive director of the Ginger and Barry Ackerley Foundation, are members of the Thrive by Five Washington board of directors.