Making Early Childhood Statistics Personal

As a policy wonk, I love statistics. When I read the 2016 Virginia School Readiness Report Card, it’s easy for me to paint a picture in my mind. The number of low birth-weight babies is down 4.4% over the past decade, which is great because it reduces the risk for developmental issues. According to the PALS benchmark, over 4,300 more five-year-olds are entering kindergarten each year with the foundation needed for academic success.

It wasn’t until having my own child, however, that I began to truly understand the urgency and meaning surrounding these indicators. My daughter, Alma, who is now a year and a half old, was born very big (nearly 10 pounds!). I’ve seen how much that healthy size propelled her development forward. It’s easier to understand how the babies born weighing less than 5.5 pounds, essentially half of Alma’s size, would be prone to a much more fraught start to life. Similarly, watching her begin to experiment with language and eagerly demand seventeen readings of the same book demonstrates the privilege she has in being able to grow her brain in a safe, stimulating environment. It fuels my conviction that all children deserve such opportunities.

All of this provides color to the headlines of the School Readiness Report Card. Thanks to the hard work of so many early childhood educators, policymakers, political leaders, advocates, and the robust backing of a business community as keyed into the importance of early childhood as any in the nation, Virginia has made massive strides. The life course for tens of thousands of Virginia’s future citizens and workers, and the future of the Commonwealth itself, have indelibly changed for the better.

This is particularly heartening to me as someone who has recently returned to Virginia, my native state, after nearly a decade away. I’m proud to come back home to a place that is so committed to the youngest among us, proud that this is where Alma will spend her most developmentally formative years, and proud to get to work on keeping the positive momentum going.

At the same time, significant challenges remain. Breaking down the data by groups, it’s clear that poor children and children of color continue to lag behind their peers; for instance, they failed the kindergarten readiness exam in 2014 at double the average rate. The adverse effects of poverty and the chronic stress it causes create mental noise that disrupts development and learning. It’s all the more reason to come together as a state and, in the words of the Report Card, “overcome characteristics of malaise, overwhelm, risk aversion, and territorialism that can be barriers to progress.”

Virginia has made so much progress over the past decade with an increasingly unified approach. We can make so much more as we continue climbing towards a summit where all children are thriving. These are real children, real Virginians with faces and names and budding aspirations. We’ve hit the ignition-- now, for their sake, it’s time to take it into a higher gear.

Author: Elliot Haspel, Policy Analyst, VECF

August 1, 2016