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ECE: The Obstacle Course Wall

Note: See Demo at bottom of page


Point 1 – Decades of social and economic research, beginning with Coleman and including Heckman, (Nobel Prize winner) Rolnick (Ex of the FED), Hanushek (Hoover Institute) and many others, and decades of developmental neuroscience research, most notably as compiled by Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff, have converged and coalesced in the modern edu-economic arguments for Universal Pre-K – for the need to BOOST the ‘school readiness’ of children (particularly disadvantaged children) entering the K-12 pipeline. The national scramble, the billions of dollars being spent (including PNC’s “Grow Up Great” $350 million, and the numerous birth to 5 initiatives) are all powered by the case to improve children’s readiness for the learning challenges that await them in K-6.

Point 2 – Decades of educational research have shown that the most powerful predictors of educational success are all connected to reading. 3rd Grade Pledges, like similar efforts in every school system in America, are attempts to focus resources on helping children break through to grade-level reading before it’s ‘too late’.  Despite decades of efforts to improve early grade reading scores, evidence continues to show that children who do not enter kindergarten with sufficient ‘readiness’ (vocabulary, letter-knowledge, processing speed, emotional resilience….) are unlikely to ever achieve grade-level reading proficiency.

Point 3 – Both #1 and #2 above are different ‘views’ of the same underlying issue. Our efforts to boost readiness are essentially efforts to boost children’s readiness to take off in reading.

The Metaphor: The Obstacle Course Wall

K-6 is an obstacle course. There are 3 great walls in the obstacle course , and children’s success in school is welded to how well they get over / past all 3. The first and most formidable of these walls is the wall of reading.  Learning to read is like learning to scale a 20 foot high wall which only has handholds and footholds every 3 feet.  It is this wall that defines points 1 and 2.  All the energy and money going into Pre-K efforts are attempts to make kids better ready for the challenge of climbing the wall. All initial reading programs are attempts to make kids better wall -climbers before they run out of time (3rd grade pledges).

Sixty-four percent of U.S. 4th grade children are unable to read proficiently. Reading is not transparent to learning from the written materials used in their classes. For children of color and/or poverty, the numbers are much worse.

Seventy-five percent of children who do not reach proficiency with reading by the 3rd grade never catch up and are four times more likely to drop out of high school (What’s At Stake).

Many children begin school coming from early life-learning trajectories (particularly with respect to language) that did not provide them with the exposure and exercise it takes to be ready for the challenges involved in learning to read.  Though in NO WAY their fault, most students who struggle with reading begin to blame themselves and feel ashamed of themselves, and as they do, they begin to avoid reading to avoid that feeling.  The downward spiral that ensues profoundly maligns their trajectories throughout school and life.

Unable to sufficiently improve, unable to avoid the challenge (day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year), children who struggle with reading fall further and further behind.  The mind-shaming effects of feeling ‘not good enough’ at learning have even greater life-distorting implications (Mind-Shame). For each child, for the education system, and for the nation as a whole, the negative ripple effects are staggering.

The assumption underlying Pre-K investments and the design of all reading programs (to date) is that the wall is an immutable object.  But what if instead of being a 20 foot wall with handholds and footholds every 3 feet, it was an adjustable height wall that had handholds and footholds that dynamically adapted to the ‘reach’ of each climber? What if, rather than just spending enormous energy trying to ‘ready’ kids for the challenge of climbing the wall, we also LOWERED the wall and made it easier (neurologically more efficient) for kids to climb?

See other examples:

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