(Special to The Root) — Continuing their historical practice of working together to address issues of concern to the African-American community, the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are working cooperatively to improve educational opportunities for all students. This week we will run op-eds by the leaders of each organization that address a crucial aspect of what it will take to prepare our young people to succeed in life. First up: The president of the NAACP addresses early-childhood education.
This month we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which set our nation on the path to the end of slavery.
Upon receiving their freedom, our ancestors' first priority was to get an education for themselves and their children. In Georgia it was illegal for slaves to read, yet schools for slaves and freedmen had been operating in secret for years. When teachers publicly opened their classroom doors in 1865, they were met with an overflow of students. With scarce federal support but a true understanding of the value of education, they built dozens of schools using their own resources and their bare hands.
My grandmother is 96. Her grandfather was a slave until the end of the Civil War. She was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Virginia that he helped build, and at a college he helped found.
In 2013, the Year of the Black Student, our desire for generational progress is as urgent as ever. As parents, we still demand that our children have better opportunities than we did. And we are still willing to sacrifice to make that a reality.
Yet our children are growing up in states that spend more and more on prisons and less and less on public higher education. They grow up in a nation that leads the world in incarceration but can no longer claim to lead it in job creation.
If we are going to deliver on our ambitions, we must do what our ancestors did: build a better America for our children with our own hands. We will need two things: a collective plan of action and an individual commitment to do whatever we must to ensure that our children get what they need to succeed.
A new NAACP action plan, "Finding Our Way Back to First," sets out to empower communities with that plan.
One of the report's key findings is that our children's and our nation's path to greatness begins well before kindergarten.
If you want to find the root of America's intranational inequities and international decline, stop by your local elementary school. Decades of research show that the kindergarten classroom is the point on the graph where lines start to diverge based on race, class and socioeconomic status and, thus, where our nation's educational performance starts to trail those of other countries.
From 1999 to 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics followed a geographically and ethnically diverse group of students, tracking their progress from kindergarten to middle school. They found that by the third grade, a low-income student who is reading below grade level is already 13 times less likely to graduate on time than a reading-proficient, wealthier peer.
But the kindergarten results are even more disturbing. At the very first stage of formal schooling, children in the highest socioeconomic level already outperformed their playmates in the lowest socioeconomic level by 60 percent. And given the link between the legacies of slavery and segregation and modern patterns of poverty, it should come as no surprise that white kindergartners outperformed their black classmates by 21 percent.
Why is this? In the first five years of life, the brain develops swiftly as children gain essential language and literacy skills. These skills range from visual recognition of words and numbers to the simple knowledge that a book is read from left to right, top to bottom, front to back.
Many children of color — particularly those who are also poor — lack a language-rich environment in these formative years. On average, higher-income families speak 30 million more words to their children than lower-income families do.
Meanwhile, low-income families tend to have fewer books in their homes, less access to good libraries and less access to the Internet. Exposure to fewer words and books can severely stunt a child's educational maturity.
One answer is a reinvigorated early-childhood-education movement. The NAACP's action plan endorses a program called Educare, a public-private partnership that provides high-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers with a language-rich environment before they fall behind in formal schooling. Early data show that students who attended the program for five years entered kindergarten just as ready as their middle-class peers.
Still, while public policy can play a role, the ultimate responsibility to educate our children rests with each of us who is blessed to be a parent — just as it was with our ancestors at the dawn of our collective freedom.
As a father of two young kids in a household in which both parents work, I am intimately familiar with many of the pressures that create incentives for us to undereducate our own children. I admit that I have sometimes strayed from the path of conviction cut by our ancestors — I have used television as a babysitter or found myself feeling too tired to read to my children some nights.
But when I feel that way, I look at my children and think about how far we have come for them and how far they will need to go for their own kids. Then I put down the work I have brought home with me, pick up that book and read to them as if their very lives depend on it.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the 17th president and CEO of the NAACP. In 2012 Jealous was ranked No. 3 on The Root 100 list and received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. Jealous and his wife, Lia, are the proud parents of two children.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.