If only 1 in 4 kids are ready for kindergarten, then Illinois is not ready at all

Investing in high-quality early childhood care and preschool is the best way to ensure that children are fully ready for kindergarten.

SHARE If only 1 in 4 kids are ready for kindergarten, then Illinois is not ready at all
Meyer School’s Jump Start to Kindergarten program allows students to experience kindergarten and the school system they are about to enter a few weeks before school officially opens. | Mike Isaacs/Sun-Times Media

Youngsters in a kindergarten class.

Sun-Times file photo

Most people are of the general view that children are ready for kindergarten when they have mastered the most basic of skills, such as tying their shoes, reciting the ABCs and identifying colors and shapes.

As it happens, though, “school readiness” is a lot more involved than that. And kindergarten teachers in an increasing number of states, including Illinois, are required to measure that readiness in kids’ first days in school.

If a child is found to be behind, the thinking goes, the teacher can help him or her catch up fast.

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For example, is the child able to engage in conversation with an adult? Does he understand and ask questions about a story that someone reads to him? Can she sort beads into groups, by size and color? Does he interact with classmates and wait for his turn on the playground swings?

A “yes” to such questions indicates a child is ready for kindergarten, and for life beyond.

Illinois is among at least 25 states that now require schools to assess school readiness, according to 2018 federal data.

The early findings are not heartening.

The first results of Illinois’ Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, or KIDS, flew largely under the radar when they were released in late 2019. The key finding, though, was eye-opening: Only one in four kindergartners are “school ready.”

In administering the KIDS survey, teachers observed their children’s classroom behavior and activities, then rated the kids on 14 specific indicators of language, math and social and emotional skills. When the results of observations of nearly 124,000 children across the state were analyzed, only 26% of the kids were found to have the necessary skill levels in all three areas.

Equally troubling, four in 10 children didn’t have sufficient skills in any of the three areas. 

Deputy Governor for Education Jesse Ruiz, a leader of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s new early childhood commission, put it to us bluntly.

“The KIDS data bears out the fact that we have a lot of work to do,” Ruiz told us. “Kindergarten readiness is key. We can’t make that up in the K-12 years. We have to pay attention to the first five years.”

The latest and best research on brain development has concluded that the years from birth to age 5, when children’s brains soak up everything like sponges, are a make-or-break time. That’s when the stage is heavily set for success — or struggle — in school and life.

Investing in high-quality early care and preschool is one of the best ways to ensure that children are fully ready for kindergarten. Children who attend a high-quality preschool are more likely to earn their high school diploma, enroll in college, get a good job and even stay healthy.

Pritzker recently named a 29-member early childhood commission to figure out the best way for cash-strapped Illinois to use its resources to improve child care and preschool programs. Eventually, Ruiz told us, the commission will put a price tag on the governor’s ambitious campaign promise to provide universal preschool throughout the state before the end of his first term.

In the meantime, Illinois is spending $58 million in new federal dollars to expand home visiting programs and shore up the abysmally low pay of child care workers, Pritzker announced last week.

Commission members are optimistic about the prospects for universal preschool. We’re more skeptical, given the state’s fiscal mess. But let’s see what the commission comes up with.

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” Aristotle famously said.

Our worry is that 7 might be too late.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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