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Study: Md., Va. Prep Kids For Success. D.C. Doesn't.

Maryland is among the best places in the country in preparing children for success in school and beyond, according to a new study by Save the Children, the Washington-based non-profit.

Maryland ranks eighth among all states and the District in measures such as parental encouragement, preschool participation and quality of home environment. Virginia landed 13th on the list and the District was way down at the bottom, at 42nd in the nation.

Overall, the report paints a dismal picture of parenting and schooling in America. It finds that 68 percent of American fourth-graders are not reading at grade level--64 percent in Maryland, 62 percent in Virgina and 86 percent in the District.

Some of the group's assumptions about what works don't necessarily track in every case. Although only 49 percent of three- and four-year-olds in Maryland and Virginia attend pre-school, that number soars to 68 percent in the District--the highest in the United States--yet the results are dismal. So it's not mere attendance in pre-school that makes a difference, but rather what happens in pre-school and how good the programs are.

There's a much better correlation between overall success and the percentage of children who grow up in single-parent households. States at the top of the list universally have much lower percentages of kids in one-parent homes than states at the bottom. In Virginia, 28 percent of children five and under live in single-parent homes; in Maryland, that figure is 30 percent. In the District, it jumps to 47 percent, again the highest in the nation. (Utah is lowest at 17 percent.)

Save the Children, which is run by Mark Shriver, the former Maryland legislator from Montgomery County, offers a recipe for success based on World Bank and United Nations assessments of policies that prepare children to thrive. The benchmarks include subsidized and regulated child care for kids three and under, accredited early education programs for four-year-olds, and training requirements for child care workers. Of 10 key measures the study focuses on, only Sweden goes 10 for 10. The United States ties for third lowest among developed countries, with Spain, Mexico and Switzerland, winning credit in only three of the 10 measures.

The states with the worst record of preparing kids are New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, Arizona and Alabama, and the top five states on the list are Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. In Maine and Vermont, for example, 89 percent of children are read to by parents at home at least three times a week--tops in the nation, according to the survey. Connecticut leads the nation in the portion of children who attend pre-school--65 percent. The early childhood factors the group chose to look at seem to be the ones that bear fruit--the same states that excel in those early childhood indicators also boast the lowest high school dropout rates in the country, as well as some of the highest rates of college attendance.

(At the low end of the scale, only 28 percent of kids in Nevada attend pre-school, and Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana have the lowest rate of parents who read to their children frequently, at 73 percent.)

Save the Children has traditionally focused its research and campaigns on kids overseas, but this year, the group has added a United States School Success Index. Researchers compared states by how often parents read to children, how extensively preschool programs are available to kids, and how many children grow up in single-parent homes, among other measures.

The full report is at savethechildren.org

By Marc Fisher |  May 5, 2009; 7:48 AM ET  | Category:  Family , Maryland , Schools , Social services , The District , Virginia
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Actually, it isn't only preschool attendance that is not in and of itself an indicator of future success - all of these indicators are nothing more than proxies for parental involvement, education, and resources. In the case of the District, I'd suspect that preschool is a place to send the children for day care, and that many people lack the experience or the resources to pick a program that will provide much more than that. In the rich suburbs, on the contrary, people have the resources to leave a parent at home with preschool age children. No wonder preschool attendance is inversely related to later success in this case.

What I find truly amazing is the extent to which what is expected of parents has morphed over the years. When I was a child, we learned to read in school and we were socialized largely at home. Now that seems to have been reversed: my children are required to demonstrate that they are doing their reading with me at home, and they are being taught various social and moral concepts at school. What the heck happened?

What you are seeing in these numbers is the collapse of the public school system and the systematic destruction of the middle class. In an economy where two parents have to work full time (at least) to make ends meet, and where having children (and consequently having to take on overwhelming debt to afford a house in a decent school district) is the single biggest predictor of bankruptcy, something fundamental is broken in society. No amount of reading to your children in the 20 free minutes a day before bed is going to fix that.

Posted by: BadMommy1 | May 5, 2009 9:10 AM

Another issue raising DC's preschool rate is that many parents move out of the District before kindergarten. I know that is what I am planning to do when my children (almost 3 and 1) reach school age. I am always amazed at the amount of young children I see in my neighborhood but many parents are planning to do the same as I am. I love the city but am not willing to gamble my children's future on DC public schools and am not going to shell out for private schools with some the best public school districts in the country (Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery) just a few miles away.

Posted by: cdw1974 | May 5, 2009 9:32 AM

Something I've always wondered - what is "reading at grade level"? 100 years ago, did someone sit down and figure out how many words and how complex a sentence structure your average 1st grader could puzzle out? Or maybe 2/3 of your 1st graders, or 95%?

We need a reference point. If reading levels were based on the average 1st grader, then you'd expect 50% to read below "grade level". Give us something to compare, please!

Posted by: tomsing | May 5, 2009 10:00 AM

You wrote:
"Some of the group's assumptions about what works don't necessarily track in every case. Although only 49 percent of three- and four-year-olds in Maryland and Virginia attend pre-school, that number soars to 68 percent in the District--the highest in the United States--yet the results are dismal. So it's not mere attendance in pre-school that makes a difference, but rather what happens in pre-school and how good the programs are."

I would argue that it has nothing to do with either. Children need to be in environments rich in love, where their souls are nourished, where their natural curiosity is encouraged, and where they can feel safe asking all the bazillions of questions that occur in the mind of a small child.

In my opinion, rather than the government funding preschools where parents can dump their kids off while they go work at their full-time (or more) jobs, how about they pay for parent education classes, and pay one of the parents to stay home for the first 5-7 years of a child's life (at least), and even more if the parent is having success at home - pay them to stay at home and educate their kids themselves, rather than expect a single teacher (pre-school or higher) to educate a mass of kids they know little or nothing about.

Mothers are the first educators of their children, and most Moms these days know little about child development and think parking their kid in front of a TV all day is acceptable "child care". The Moms love their kids more than anyone on the planet, and if someone LOVINGLY helped them learn how to raise happy, healthy, loving souls, I'm quite certain they'd be perfectly delighted to stay home and care for them, and do a great job of it.

Our country needs to restore faith in a Mother's Love!

Posted by: ktsmom9 | May 5, 2009 10:03 AM

Mark, cmon, is this really news? Take pretty much any impoverished big city out of their respective "state" and evaluate them and they'd probably be in the 40-50 range. This is a stupid, cheap shot, stating-the-obvious article. This just in! Wealthy states prepare their kids for success!!

Posted by: sgrahamuva | May 5, 2009 10:10 AM

In my opinion, cdw1974 is definitely on to something. Our daughter (age 2) is in a D.C. preschool and the market for such programs is incredibly competitive. However, once their children reach a certain age, the majority of parents in our neighborhood jump ship for better schools. We, too, are unwilling and unable to pay the monetary costs for private schools -- and sacrificing the quality of our kids' education isn't an option. Unfortunately, we have to sell our house to make sure that doesn't happen.

Posted by: schaefes | May 5, 2009 10:18 AM

This is clearly a self-esteem issue. Throw out all the reading instruction so there can be some more self-esteem training.

Posted by: Cossackathon | May 5, 2009 11:11 AM

The issue is not simple.
a. Our children are going to be competing with the world's best and brightest for the jobs of tomorrow.
b. Are our schools ready to handle that - no.
c. For children to be ready to handle that kind of curriculum if it existed which it doesn't so far - the children need world class nutrition. Parents get on the web and do your homework - find out how to feed your kids before its too late.
d. taxes need to be raised to hire more teachers for smaller classes for longer school years longer school day
e. Illegal alien children are not cheap - educate them or you run the risk of having to warehouse them - that means even more taxes
f. good luck parents - its not going to get any better unless you demand and pay for and then enforce better standards - don't count on american management to do the job - if we depended on american management during WWII Hitler would have won the war

Posted by: agapn9 | May 5, 2009 11:49 AM

In addition to raising the DC public children in the schools, Mr. Shriver has now stated, and with the backing of the U.N., we must also raise them from birth.

Posted by: fly66 | May 5, 2009 12:51 PM

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