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We Need Books for 80 Percent of Low-Income Kids — and We Need 80 Percent of Kids Ready to Learn by Kindergarten

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July 21, 2020

Eliminate Learning Gaps

We need to eliminate the learning gaps in our schools that are damaging so many children. The learning gaps have been getting worse — and that is happening because the basic realities of brain development science tells us that the things we need to do to close those gaps must be done for each child when the children are 15 months old — and there is nothing we can do that has any real chance of closing those gaps when the children are 15 years old.

We also have major wealth gaps and earning gaps in our country. Both African American and Hispanic families currently have a net worth of roughly $20,000 per family, and white families currently have an average net worth of roughly $200,000 per family.

Those major economic disparities are due to a wide range of discriminatory, damaging, intentionally dysfunctional and too often purely racist factors — but the reality and the very hard truth that we all need to face is that we will not be able to close those economic gaps in this country if the majority of children from those groups leave high school and are not able to read.

Those horrible and damaging learning gaps do not need to happen. We can make them disappear and we can prevent them from happening if we decide to do what needs to be done to make them go away. We know the process that we need to engage in to have those gaps be gone for our children.

We need to invest in every child from every group in those first months and first years of life when neuron connections happen in the brains of children from every group, so that those major learning disparities do not happen when the children are in our schools.

The process is very individual for each child.

Neuron Connections

Neuron connections happen by the billions for each child when children have the direct interactions in those very first months and years that cause those connections to happen.

We know how to make them happen. Those connections begin immediately for each child. Talking and reading to a child both build connections by the billions and even trillions for each child — and those connections last for life.

However — the process has some serious time constraints and limitations.

We need to make those connections happen in the first weeks, first months and first years for each child, because the brain changes for every child at four, and the brain changes that happen for each child from every group at that age, mean that those connections become much more difficult to make after the child is five years old.

So we need to help every child before age four.

We know what to do to make those neurons connect.

Books are extremely useful in that process. Children who have books in their homes have much better starts in those developmental areas because the neuron connections explode when reading happens and the child ends up improving both cognitive skills and emotional security through the reading process.

However — books are not fairly distributed.

The average white family in America who is not on Medicaid has 12 to 20 books per child — and the current reality is that more than half of the Hispanic and African American families on Medicaid actually do not have a single book in their homes.

The current book numbers — and some of the subsequent learning gap failures--are even worse for far too many Native American children.

Children need to hear spoken words to make neurons connect.

Studies have shown that the children in the homes with no books who are not read to at all hear roughly 5,000 spoken words by age five. By contrast, we know that the children in the families with books in the home who read at least once a day to the child hear nearly 300,000 words by age five.

Children in very fortunate families who read dozens of books each week hear nearly a million spoken words by age five — but the daily reading level of reading to the child at least once a day that raises the number of spoken words heard by the child to over 250,000 by age five has a huge positive impact on those children and that daily reading level is enough to have children be very learning ready when they get to school.

We owe it to every child born in America to have books in the homes. WIC programs that give out books to low-income kids in Southern California at the WIC visits have had over 60 percent of those children learning ready at age four. Those families loved getting books for their children in addition to the WIC coaching about food and related health subjects.

More than 60 percent of the children with Medicaid coverage are likely to have WIC encounters — and more than half of the births in America this year will be in Medicaid homes.


We need to use all of the available tools.

Learning readiness for all children should be our top priority as a nation. We have major wealth gaps, earning gaps, and even health gaps today. We can’t close those horrible economic gaps and end the massive economic disparities if the majority of children from those groups can’t read.

We owe it to every family to have children learning ready when they get to kindergarten. Instead of continuing our current level of having less than 40 percent of our children learning ready, we should set the goal of having 80 percent of the children learning ready and we should do what we need to do to make that happen.

We can do something important quickly to move in that direction.

We should set the immediate first step goal of distributing an equitable number of books to every low-income home in America. Books are easy to distribute and they are not that expensive. We need a literacy coalition to make that happen and to coordinate those efforts.

We should get books into 80 percent of the low-income homes in America in two years and into 100 percent in four years.

We also need to steer our overall work toward a simple set of readiness goals that we set for all children.

We don’t need that process to be too complex. We have extremely low performance for far too many children now and we need to move in the right directions to help more children.

We should have 80 percent of the children who enter kindergarten know the alphabet, have the ability to count to 20, and know the basic colors and shapes. We should have 80 percent recognize rhymes and interact with an adult in the school or house setting.

We need basic cognitive skills tee’d up by reading and by other interactions with each child. We don’t need to do a major and massive readiness assessment of every child. We should create expectations in a few areas — like basic counting — and then add to that evaluation process as we move forward in time.

Counting levels are not high now.

Right now, in some communities, we have only 15 percent of the children able to do the most basic math interactions. We can easily get those numbers much higher just by helping families and parents and communities to help each child use counting at some basic levels that children all actually enjoy.

No one is helping far too many families with those very basic learnings — but we can reach every family very quickly because more than half our births are in the Medicaid program and we can have Medicaid care teams encourage and support basic counting.

We need much higher levels of overall readiness as soon as we can build them.

Overall, today, less than 40 percent of children in this country are learning ready at kindergarten now. But we can use a combination of Medicaid pediatricians and nurses, child care and babysitting settings with coaching and books, nurse-family partnerships, faith group leadership and support, and a wide array of community literacy programs to support the children — and that combination of clear intentions and shared agenda can easily create a very different and much more positive trajectory for millions of children.

We don’t need to perfect the process — but we do need to support every family now and we need to do massively better than we are doing today because we know from our research that nearly a quarter of our children are now hearing fewer than 5,000 spoken words by age five, and that deficit in support in those initial times for each child puts those children into so much difficulty that life is very hard at very many levels.

We have enough resources to do that work.

In a world where racism does very real damage to far too many people, we should not have children add that much difficulty to their lives by not being ready to learn.

Make an Investment

Let’s make the investments we need to help every child.

Let’s do it with the very youngest because that’s when the need is so great.

No programs anywhere have managed to take the children who have fallen the farthest behind by age five and make a major improvement in their lives. So let’s invest whatever we need to invest now for every child born now to not have that happen to nearly one-in-four of our children.

COVID isolation makes the situation even worse if we don’t use the opportunity to help every child.

We need to get books into every low-income home as soon as possible. We need to use a combination of appropriate childhood care and education and health services to help children prepare for kindergarten, increase school attendance, graduate high school, obtain a four-year degree, and enter the workforce with the skills they need to succeed to make us stronger as a country because we have so many successful people.

Plans to distribute needed books to low-income children in California in the first years of life who have no books have actually been seriously damaged by the COVID-19 budget reductions. Progress on closing the serious learning gaps in the California schools will be set back by that failure to get books to those low-income children in the high time-period for neuron connections being made for those children.

We need to make sure that future plans for those children do involve getting that equitable level of support for all low-income families in California.

Two Goals

As a nation, we should set two goals now for our children and we should make sure that every school district and every community leadership group in America supports those goals.

Goal one should be to get an equitable number of books into more than 80 percent of low-income homes within two years.

Goal two should be to increase the number of children who are learning ready when they get to kindergarten from 40 to 80 percent.

Both of those goals are completely achievable.

We can simply do the right things for each child to make that happen.

Harvard nailed it in this video. Enjoy and learn.