Yesterday, The Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 25th edition of its KIDS COUNT Data Book, a statistical look at children’s well-being.
The report shows that, “Children have a greater opportunity to thrive and succeed in Massachusetts than in any other state,” according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), the home of KIDS COUNT here in the commonwealth.
This is exciting news for Massachusetts, but it comes with an important caveat: There is still much more work to do.
The Massachusetts KIDS COUNT data profile reports that 15 percent of the state’s children lived in poverty in 2012. And despite being first in the nation in education and fourth grade reading, 53 percent of this state’s fourth graders cannot read proficiently. Thirty percent of children have parents who don’t have secure jobs. And while an impressive 99 percent of Massachusetts’s children have health insurance, it’s also true that this state’s children are as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as children across the country.
MassBudget released the new data yesterday at an event hosted by Nurtury (formerly Associated Early Care and Education) in its brand new Learning Lab in Jamaica Plain where Governor Deval Patrick spoke, along with state legislators, local leaders, and Chris Martes, Strategies for Children’s new president and CEO.
Press Conference at Nurtury
“I want to say to the Annie E. Casey Foundation just how incredibly proud we are to be number one in the nation for child well-being,” Governor Deval Patrick said.
“This is intentional. This is what we’ve been striving for,” the governor said of seeing real improvement in the lives of the commonwealth’s children. He said the state’s success is based on a team effort of legislators, educators, advocates, and the community working together.
“The question before the commonwealth and before the country is not what to do. We know what to do. The question, I think, is do we mean what we say?” The governor explained. Does the country really mean that there should be opportunity, equality, and a fair chance for all?
Noah Berger, MassBudget’s executive director, said in a press release, “The investments we have made in our children have helped them to be better prepared to succeed than children anywhere else in America. Yet, far too many of our children are still being left behind.”
Chris Martes spoke in detail about the Data Book’s implications for early childhood. “We lead the nation in many ways and have for quite a few years,” Martes said, but with 1 in 7 of the state’s children living in poverty, Massachusetts’ accomplishments are “still not good enough.”
Martes pointed to a recent Stanford University study that found learning and language gaps among toddlers as young as 18 months old — gaps that often only get bigger by age two. “So what we see is that we have children on two different pathways to success just because of what happens at 18 months and then at two years.”
How can Massachusetts close the gap? As a former superintendent, Martes knows that, “public schools cannot do this alone. Expecting elementary schools to catch up every child isn’t realistic or cost effective. We all have a role to play in this. We need to target resources for early learning.”
Martes praised Governor Patrick and the Legislature for investing in early education and care and called for them to do more. Citing the KIDS COUNT statistic that 42 percent of Massachusetts’ children (62,000 three- and four-year-olds) do not attend preschool programs, Martes said, “Imagine if that many kids didn’t attend kindergarten, or didn’t attend first grade, or fourth grade, or eighth grade. It would be unconscionable.”
A National Perspective
“We began this project in 1990 because we believed that data was a wonderful way of talking about the well-being of children,” Jann Jackson, senior associate at the Annie E. Casey, said. Having data “charted a course between ideology and just anecdote.”
The KIDS COUNT Data Book analyzes trends for 16 indicators within four domains of child well-being. This year’s data book uses the most recently available data that can be compared across all 50 states.
The Data Book summarizes this year’s results, saying: “Comparing data from before and after the recession reveals positive and negative developments in child well-being nationally. Broadly speaking, children experienced gains in the Education and Health domains, but setbacks in the Economic Well-Being and Family and Community domains.”
Among the national statistics:
• In 2012, 23 percent of children live in poverty, up from 19 percent in 2005.
• During 2010-2012, an average of 54 percent of children did not attend preschool, a slight improvement since 2005-2007 when 56 percent did not attend preschool.
• And in 2013, 66 percent of fourth-graders were not proficient readers, an improvement from 70 percent in 2005.
“Inequities for children remain deep and stubbornly persistent,” Jackson said. “We need to be giving the children of today our very best.”
Two state legislators spoke at the press conference: State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) and Representative Jeffrey Sánchez (D-Jamaica Plain).
“You own those results; and I hope that everyone feels very proud,” Chang-Diaz said. But the “flip side” is that Massachusetts also owns the 53 percent of fourth graders who aren’t proficient readers.
Chang-Diaz said that one of the important things she learned when studying to become a teacher was that the best thing to say to a running child was not “Stop running,” but rather “Walk, please.” And in this spirit she called for saying to lawmakers, “Invest, please,” in the continued progress of children.
“This study just tells us what we know,” Sanchez said. “And it makes it even more concrete for us to step up even more so.” He thanked the Annie E. Casey Foundation for its work on community mental health in the 1990s and talked about his districts struggles with crime — both efforts that help improve outcomes for children. To make even more progress, Sanchez said, “We need our partners; and we also need those investments.”
Summing up and echoing the key challenges that Massachusetts faces, Wayne Ysaguirre, Nurtury’s president and CEO, said, “This report bears witness to the exciting strides our state has made in recent years
in support of our young children. But when over half of our fourth graders are reading below proficiency, our work is far from done. Expanding access to high-quality early education is one way to ensure all children in the commonwealth have the chance to succeed.”
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