Summer/Fall 2014
LEGISLATIVE SCOOP

Top Models for Top Babies

By Ajenai Clemmons, MPP, NBCSL Policy Director serves as NBSCL’s policy director. She was formerly the ombudsman for Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, where she helped establish a civilian agency that monitors police and sheriff internal affairs investigations. She has worked in the Iowa State Legislature as well as non-profit and private sectors. Ms. Clemmons holds a Master of Public Policy and B.A. in International Relations, Spanish, and Latin American History.
Top Models for Top Babies

Similar to the approach America has taken with our healthcare system--that is, emergency-room driven vs. preventive--America often employs a piecemeal and ineffective approach towards our education system that is both expensive and reactive.

Much of our public policy attention goes toward closing achievement gaps and addressing disastrous learning outcomes. However, achievement gaps should not be closed, they should be prevented. And, to be prevented, these issues must be addressed before children enter school.

The third grade is widely understood as a critical benchmark in academic progress. Educators often quip that up until this point, students are “learning to read,” and from that point, they are then “reading to learn.”1 Consequently, fourth grade is the point at which students must begin reading in order to master any subject matter in school, including math and science. The National Research Council wrote, “A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by the end of the third grade is quite unlikely to graduate from high school.”2 Yet, of the fourth-graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test in 2011 (which measures skills acquired by the end of the third grade), 80% of students from low-income families scored below proficiency3 whether in cities, suburbs, towns, or rural areas.4 Moderate- and high-income White students scored below proficiency a still-unacceptable, but markedly better, 49% of the time.5

The District of Columbia and fifteen states,6 intent on closing achievement gaps by the end of the third grade, have enacted legislation allowing students to be retained another year so they can meet standards.7 Thirty-two states have mandated a slew of interventions like assessments and Individual Education Plans—with some starting as early as Kindergarten.8 Although attacking the problem early on is laudable, engaging children in meaningful learning for the first time in Kindergarten means that we are already too late.9 Fortunately, some of those 32 states have recognized that a public policy agenda that does not seriously and systematically embrace children until Kindergarten misses the mark. Our states must begin to implement birth to preschool strategies that connect seamlessly into the K-12 and, ultimately, the higher education system. We need to make sure children have received the proper care and development to be ready to enter Kindergarten.10

Everyone can play a role in positioning our babies and toddlers for academic success—from parents and pediatricians11 to educators and the community-at-large—but for the purposes of The Legislator’s audience, below is a short set of legislative policy examples that work together to help families and communities. In its policy framework, the Alliance for Early Success uses a three-pronged policy approach: health, family support, and learning. Under each prong is one example states can enact or strengthen within their legislative contexts.

HEALTH POLICIES

States can make health policy choices, such as universal access to health insurance, to ensure babies and toddlers get the care and nutrition needed for appropriate brain development. This includes prenatal and oral health care.12 

Example: Oral Care Access and Service Delivery (NBCSL Resolution HHS-10-04)
Poor oral health significantly impacts a child’s ability to learn. Tooth decay is the number one chronic infectious disease in children even though it is almost always preventable.13 Associated pain and infections can negatively impact concentration and self-esteem, lead to chronic school absence, and hamper academic performance.14 At worst, infection can spread to other parts of the body, and as in the 2007 case of 12 year-old Deamonte Driver, lead to death. States can and should invest in comprehensive programs to increase awareness about proper dental hygiene. States can also provide access to services in traditional and non-traditional settings. Finally, more states should follow Alaska, Minnesota, and California’s examples by passing laws allowing for mid-level dental providers, such as dental therapists and hygienists, with expanded scopes of practice to ensure under- and uninsured children can receive the education, preventive care, and treatments they need.15

FAMILY SUPPORT POLICIES

Public policy levers can be moved to educate parents and caregivers on how to nurture their children’s cognitive and socio-emotional growth. In their capacity to provide nutrition, shelter, and safe environments to play and learn, families should be supported with job training and quality child care assistance, parenting classes, and mental health services. All of these serve to help manage family stress and reduce likelihood of abuse and neglect.16

Example: Maternal Infant Early Childhood Wellness Home Visitation (NBCSL Resolution HHS-13-40)
States should invest in voluntary programs for expectant parents to receive home visits from qualified health professionals to learn about proper child care. Through the Affordable Care Act, $1.5 billion was made available to states for home visitation programs through 2014, which has since been extended through March of 2015. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, over 20 states have passed legislation leveraging federal funds, supporting the most evidence-based approaches, and allowing better coordination of state and federal program dollars.17 Ideally, the programs should be widely available, but at the very least, they should target high-risk mothers. Across the country, the returns on investment have been substantial. Pew Center on the States estimated for every $1 spent, states have received at least $2 in savings due to lower abuse and neglect rates, reductions in low birth weight incidences, increases in school readiness and achievement, as well as improvements in family economic and self-sufficiency.18

EARLY LEARNING POLICIES

Development of language, motor, motivational, and regulatory skills (such as self-control) along with social-emotional and cognitive skills (like following directions) show explosive growth in the first four years of life. Failure to properly develop can have permanent effects on children’s capacity to learn.19 As such, states should provide continuous and integrated learning opportunities from infancy through early elementary school. Further, they should maintain progress through provision of out-of-school and summer learning opportunities.20  

Example: Provision of high-quality early child care and education (NBCSL Resolutions EDU-10-36, EDU 12-01)
We know that infants and toddlers exposed to high-quality early care and education show superior development in every aspect versus children who are not exposed. This is especially pronounced for economically disadvantaged children. States should institute universal pre-school programs, but at a minimum offer targeted, voluntary access to high-quality early learning centers. Colorado is a great example.21 Part of this strategy includes embracing models such as Promise Zones, which align evidence-based early childhood learning practices with K-12 and postsecondary education, pursue sustainable and coordinated revenue streams, and integrate services to care for the whole child. Lastly, expansion necessitates increased professional development and education to bolster the numbers of qualified early childhood education professionals.22

Conclusion

Not only is the African proverb true that it takes a village to raise a child, scientific evidence tells us in no uncertain terms that we have not a moment to lose in nurturing that child. Public investment in our nation’s babies is where moral clarity and fiscal conservatism meet. The longer we wait to educate our children, the less likely we will be able to do so.



  1. Rich, M. (2014, Aug.). “A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade: Literacy Laws Challenge Third Graders and Schools.” New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/us/a-summer-of-extra-reading-and-hope-for-fourth-grade.html
  2. Eds. Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., and Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy of Sciences National Research Council. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED416465.pdf  
  3. Fiester, L. (2013). Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading. Retrieved from the Annie E. Casey Foundation website: http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-EarlyWarningConfirmed-2013.pdf
  4. Fiester, L. (2010). Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. A KIDS COUNT Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-Early_Warning_Full_Report-2010.pdf
  5. “Early Reading Proficiency in the United States.” (2014, Jan.). Retrieved from Annie E. Casey Foundation website: http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-EarlyReadingProficiency-2014.pdf
  6. Lu, A. (2013, Nov.). “States Insist on Third Grade Reading Proficiency.” Stateline. Retrieved from the Pew Charitable Trusts website: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2013/11/15/states-insist-on-third-grade-reading-proficiency
  7. Rose, S. (2012, Aug.). “Third Grade Reading Policies.” Retrieved from the Education Commission of the States website: http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/03/47/10347.pdf
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Third Grade Reading Success Matters.” (2014). Retrieved from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading website: http://gradelevelreading.net/our-work/school-readiness
  10. Tout, K. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth Through Eight Policy Framework. Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/website_files/files/B8%20Policy%20Framework%20Research.pdf  
  11. Motoko, R. (2014, June). “Pediatrics Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children from Birth.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/24/us/pediatrics-group-to-recommend-reading-aloud-to-children-from-birth.html
  12. Tout, K. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth Through Eight Policy Framework. Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/website_files/files/B8%20Policy%20Framework%20Research.pdf
  13. “Children’s Oral Health Overview.” (2013, Sept.). Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Oral Health website: http://www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/children_adults/child.htm
  14. “Preventing Cavities, Gum Disease, Tooth Loss, and Oral Cancers At A Glance 2011.” (2011, July). Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control website: http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/aag/doh.htm#aag
  15. “Dental Care in America: Mid-Level Providers in Action.” (2014, June). Retrieved from the Pew Charitable Trusts website: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/projects/childrens-dental-policy
  16. Tout, K. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth Through Eight Policy Framework. Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/website_files/files/B8%20Policy%20Framework%20Research.pdf
  17. “Home Visiting Enacted Legislation in States: Enacted Legislation 2008-2014.” (2014, May). Retrieved from the National Conference of State Legislatures website: http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/home-visiting-enacted-legislation-in-states.aspx
  18. “The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.” (2014, Feb.). Retrieved from the Pew Charitable Trusts website: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/q-and-a/2014/02/21/the-maternal-infant-and-early-childhood-home-visiting-program
  19. Fiester, L. (2010). Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. A KIDS COUNT Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-Early_Warning_Full_Report-2010.pdf
  20. Tout, K. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth Through Eight Policy Framework. Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/website_files/files/B8%20Policy%20Framework%20Research.pdf
  21. Jaeger, B. (2014, June). “Colorado Early Childhood Advocates Celebrate After Successful Legislative Session.” Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/blog/colorado-early-childhood-advocates-celebrate-after-successful-legislative-session
  22. Tout, K. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth Through Eight Policy Framework. Retrieved from The Alliance for Early Success website: http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/website_files/files/B8%20Policy%20Framework%20Research.pdf
Ajenai Clemmons, MPP

NBCSL Policy Director serves as NBSCL’s policy director. She was formerly the ombudsman for Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, where she helped establish a civilian agency that monitors police and sheriff internal affairs investigations. She has worked in the Iowa State Legislature as well as non-profit and private sectors. Ms. Clemmons holds a Master of Public Policy and B.A. in International Relations, Spanish, and Latin American History.

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