Ready for Kindergarten?

Governor Hogan has a chance to make early childhood education a signature issue of his administration.

Even Maryland's youngest students are feeling the effect of the state's switch to the more rigorous academic requirements of the Common Core standards. This week state officials reported that fewer than half the state's 4- and 5-year-olds are "fully ready" to succeed when they enter Kindergarten, down from 83 percent who were judged ready in 2014. That dramatic drop is almost entirely due to the introduction of new achievement tests this year that measure students' skills against the higher standards embodied in the Common Core.

Educators have long known that strong early childhood education programs for pre-K and Kindergarten students can vastly improve children's chances of success in the later grades. The Common Core, a set of standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, was introduced in Maryland in pre-K three years ago, but until now the state has been using an older assessment tool to measure whether 4- and 5-year-olds were performing up to snuff. The results of the new exam show there's a lot more work to be done in the state's public pre-K and kindergarten programs to prepare children to meet the higher standards and also to reduce the racial and class disparities in achievement levels they revealed.

This is where Gov. Larry Hogan can make an important contribution after his controversial decision earlier this month to withhold some $68 million in education funding set aside by the legislature for the 13 school districts where education costs are highest. We disagreed with that decision because we believe excellent schools are vital to ensuring the state's economic well being in an era that demands a well-educated workforce for future growth, a need that is particularly acute in Baltimore. But we were also troubled by the lack of details school systems provided about exactly how they planned to use the extra funds in a way that would improve student achievement.

Virtually every study has shown that investing in early childhood education offers the biggest bang for the buck in terms of preparing students for college or career. It's far easier to pique a 4- or 5-year-old's curiosity and interest in a way that predisposes them to develop critical thinking skills and good habits of mind than it is to try to impart those same qualities to older children.

It's worth pointing out that many of the skills pre-K and kindergartners today are expected to master far exceed anything asked of earlier generations. For example, to be "fully ready" under the Common Core youngsters must know the difference between informative/explanatory and opinion writing by the time they enter kindergarten. Kindergartens should also be able to name geometric shapes, such as circles, triangles and squares and retell a story in which all the plot elements appear in their proper sequence.

That's asking a lot of our students and teachers, but achieving it can only be good for Maryland's future competitiveness in the global marketplace, and Mr. Hogan should run with it. The governor's focus on education so far has been to reform state law to encourage the development of more charter schools — a worthy effort which we support — but his legislation was badly watered down in the General Assembly. He might have more success and do even more to boost student achievement by adopting the signature issue of his Democratic opponent: expanding high-quality pre-K. The heavily Republican states of Georgia and Oklahoma are considered national leaders on that front; there's no reason Governor Hogan shouldn't try to join them.

During the campaign, Governor Hogan said he didn't oppose universal pre-K, he just didn't think Maryland could afford it. The state certainly hasn't gotten more flush since then. But Mr. Hogan could lead a conversation on how we prioritize our educational spending to determine whether more of it should go where it can make the most difference.

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