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#AskExcelinEd: How can early learning help states close the equity gap?

• Cari Miller

As we continue to explore how states are advancing educational equity that offers students quality learning opportunities, Policy Director of Early Literacy Cari Miller discusses the importance of high quality early learning programs and highlights four states who are leading the way.

A new resource from CCSSO is now available to support equity improvements already underway in many states. States Leading for Equity: Promising Practices Advancing the Equity Commitments highlights a few states that have promising practices to address the equity issues for your youngest learners.

To help close the equity gap we know that It is critically important to invest in high-quality, standards-based early education programs for low-income families. It is also essential to ensure that all children are well-equipped with oral language, early literacy and early math skills so that they enter Kindergarten ready to learn. This requires alignment of standards and expectations from Prekindergarten to K-3 and a commitment to support the integration of these different systems.

We also know that reading by the end of third grade has a direct correlation to whether a student graduates from high school or not. In 2011, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report titled, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. The study analyzed the reading scores and graduation rates of nearly 4,000 students over 10 years. The study found that nearly 90 percent of high school dropouts were struggling readers in third grade. The study also found that:

  • Children who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Low-income African-American and Hispanic students who are not proficient readers are eight times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

States focusing on providing high-quality, standards-based early education programs are on the right track. These programs must be aligned to K-3 standards with emphasis on oral language development and early literacy and math skills. Further, the states need policies to help ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade. When these are in place, states have a fighting chance of improving equity for our youngest learners.

A commitment to support these different systems cannot be understated. While the public sector dominates K-3 systems, the private sector rules the world of Prekindergarten. Nationally, Prekindergarten programs are a combination of federal and state-funded programs with different governance structure in most states. Efforts to support and coordinate these systems are essential.

States leading the way include:

  • Half-day Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program provided for all 4-year-olds
  • Aligned Prekindergarten/Kindergarten standards
  • VPK Pre/Post assessment of early academic skills
  • Kindergarten Readiness Screener emphasizing early academic skills
  • K-3 Reading Policy focused on reading by the end of third grade


  • Pre-kindergarten program for disadvantaged students
  • Aligned Prekindergarten/Kindergarten standards
  • Academic Prekindergarten/Kindergarten assessment alignment
  • Literacy-Based Promotion Act focused on reading by the end of third grade
  • Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Statewide

North Carolina

  • Prekindergarten full-day program for at-risk 4-year-olds from low-income families who have not participated in other early childhood programs
  • NC-Prek program is required to use approved curricula and formative assessments that are aligned with the state’s early learning standards, which align to NC’s Standards Course of Study for Kindergarteners.
  • Read to Achieve (RtA) focused on reading by the end of third grade
  • NC Reads Initiative ensuring that preschool and elementary students have books to read at home


  • Full-day Prekindergarten program provided for all 4-year-olds
  • Vertically aligned standard PreK to 12th grade standards
  • Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA)

Be sure to take a closer look at these states and the details shared in CCSSO’s States Leading for Equity resource. It’s sure to inspire continued great work!

About the author

Cari Miller

Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of Early Literacy for ExcelinEd. She works hand in hand with states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy, and she supports state departments with effective policy implementation. Cari is a former elementary teacher and reading coach. She also served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in other capacities, including: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. Her sole mission is to improve student reading achievement across the nation.