Speakers: Reading at a young age vital in overcoming the achievement gap

Dr. Ron Ferguson is director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

If some kids are born on third base, then others are born several blocks from the ball field. That’s what researchers concluded after looking at low-income children’s test scores and comparing their adult success to what earlier academic results predicted.

And Greenville has a lot of children who start out life far from the ballpark.

Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster

“Fifty-seven percent of children in Greenville County schools are in poverty. People don’t realize that,” says Greenville County Schools Superintendent and 2017 S.C. Superintendent of the Year Burke Royster, speaking May 5 to a group of educators and early childhood experts at the Thornblade Club, as part of the launching of Palmetto Basics.

One of the keys to successful people is they like to read, and they read things beyond what they need to read to make a living, Royster says.

Research has shown that kids who have few reading and math skills when they’re young never catch up with their more fortunate peers.

“We looked to see how their test scores predicted their wages and work experience as young adults, and it turned out those skill gaps identified by those test scores predict a lot of the economic disparity that concerns us,” says Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. Ferguson spoke in Greenville on May 5 at a meeting about the new Palmetto Basics project.

Palmetto Basics was designed based on the work of Ferguson and others involved with the Basics National Network. The project’s purpose is to put a community to action to improve the academic possibilities for all children.

“The Palmetto Basics are five simple and fun things parents can do to help their children get ready for school,” says Beth Jamieson, strategic operations director for Greenville First Steps.

Some children need extra help before they enter kindergarten – or even preschool, Jamieson says.

Their parents need to learn how to pique their curiosity and learning skills. For example, it’s not enough to just read a book to a young child. The parent should point at pictures and playact the part vocally to capture the child’s attention, Ferguson explains.

And parents need help.

Changing ingrained parenting styles that focus more on reprimands and “children should be seen and not heard” takes time and energy. The child’s entire community needs to help, including the barbershop, the church, the school, and others, he says.

“We want to help families experience positive reinforcement from every direction,” Ferguson says. “It’s not about hiring new people; it’s not about creating new programs; it’s about changing the conversation.”

For example, the family’s barber could ask, “How’s that reading going?” The church family could demonstrate how to love children with positive reinforcement and offer tips on how to reduce parental stress.

Organizations can even use technology to help. Day cares and pediatricians can encourage parents to sign up for an app that sends out reminders about singing to newborns, counting with toddlers, and more.

“You can build communities around the use of the app,” Ferguson says. “Someone at the day care center could say, ‘You’re at week 10? Here’s what I did at week 10. It was so great, I’ve been doing it ever since then.’”

The 5 Palmetto Basics for infants and preschool children

  1. Maximize love, manage stress.
  2. Talk, sing, and point.
  3. Count, group, and compare.
  4. Explore through movement and play.
  5. Read and discuss.


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