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Improving Early Education in Southern States

We've written previously about how southern states are leading the way in expanding access to quality pre-k. They're also among the national leaders in expanding access to full-day kindergarten.

But did you know that southern states are also leaders in improving academic achievement in the early grades? That's what a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board shows. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the state with the greatest increase in the percentage of students reading at the proficient level was Alabama, and the state with the greatest increase in the percentage of students proficient in math was West Virginia--both southern states. In the 1992 NAEP, only one southern state--Virginia--had a higher percentage of 4th grade students proficient on in reading and math than the national average (Maryland had a higher percentage proficient in math, and Oklahoma had a higher percentage proficient in reading). On the 2007 NAEP, seven southern states bested national averages for the percentage of students proficienct in reading or math, and four--Delaware, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia--did so in both subjects. Most important, low-income students from southern states are outperforming their peers nationally on the NAEP.

That's good news. Southern states have made significant investments in early education as well as focusing substantial energy on standards-based reforms (particularly in the early grades). But there's still a great deal to be done. Overall, southern students still lag their peers nationwide on the 4th grade NAEP in reading and math, and far too many southern children complete fourth grade without the skills they need to succeed in the next level of their schooling. That's in part because standards in many southern states are to low--the definition of "proficiency" on many state standards and assessments is closer to what NAEP defines as "basic" achievement. (To be fair, that's also a problem in non-southern states).

SREB offers five recommendations for southern policymakers to continue the progress their states have made in improving early elementary students' achievement:

  • Increase the rigor of state academic standards to appropriately challenge students and prepare them with the skills they need to succeed in the middle grades. (Some states have already raised their standards, but more work remains to be done.)
  • Provide professional development to help educators align standards, curriculum, and assessments to support student learning in the early grades.
  • Improve schools' capacity to educate English language learner and low-income students, who will comprise a larger share of southern states' student populations in the coming years.
  • Invest in early grades reading programs to sustain reading achievement gains and fill in for funding lost as a result of federal cuts to the Reading First program.
  • Implement effective intervention programs that help students who fail state gateway exams required for grade promotion to gain the skills they need to pass.

Those are good recommendations. We have two others. First, southern states that have made significant investments in pre-k programs should ensure that standards, curricula, and professional development in those programs are aligned with early elementary standards, so that pre-k and early elementary programs work together to ensure students are proficient by fourth grade.

Second, federal policymakers should help and prod states to implement these recommendations. For instance, federal policymakers could create incentives for states to increase the rigor of their standards (or implement high-quality voluntary national standards); restore Reading First funding; and should ensure that NCLB maintains its focus on improving how schools serve low-income, racial/ethnic minority, and English language learner students. All of these policies would help continue and build on the progress southern states have made so far.

Beyond the recommendations, the report provides a wealth of information on state policies related to early education in the 16 SREB states, and it's well worth checking out.