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More than 40 percent of students in Mississippi are not ready for kindergarten, according to the results of a survey released Monday.

Skeptics of education reform plans in Mississippi say that the state should focus on early childhood literacy instead of charter schools and private school vouchers. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Mississippi KIDS COUNT, a project of the Family and Children Research Unit at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center surveyed kindergarten teachers across the state to assess their perspectives on student readiness.

About 25 percent of the state’s kindergarten teachers responded, and indicated that 41 percent of their students were unable to identify colors and shapes or hold a crayon when they started school. Seventy-one percent of teachers had at least one student in their classroom who was repeating kindergarten.

The results come at a time of increased focus on quality early childhood education, which advocates say could better prepare children for school. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration proposed a $75 billion program that would provide pre-k to every low and moderate-income four-year-old in America.

Nationally, less than half of poor children are deemed ready for school at age five, compared to 75 percent of their moderate and high-income peers. A growing body of research has found that high quality pre-k programs can boost reading and math scores, and teach children important classroom skills like how to raise their hand and pay attention. Some critics have balked at spending more money on pre-k programs that they say may not have long-term benefits. A controversial Head Start study released in December found that by the end of first grade, positive effects of the pre-k program had mostly disappeared.

In April, Mississippi became the last state in the south to pass a law to fund pre-k. Currently, about 50 percent of the state’s three and four-year-olds are not enrolled in a preschool program. Mississippi’s law allows for $3 million in matching funds for preschool programs that meet specific quality standards, such as serving at least one meal a day that meets national dietary standards, hiring qualified teachers, and adopting a research based curriculum. As of late October 72 programs have expressed interest in applying for the money.

The survey’s release coincided with the Monday release of a national report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit child advocacy organization, that compared the early childhood experiences of children across the nation. Sixty-three percent of children under eight in Mississippi live in low-income households, compared to the national average of 48 percent. While 54 percent of children under five in North Carolina receive health screenings that can identify developmental, behavioral, and social delays, only 18 percent of children in Mississippi receive such screenings.

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Jackie Mader supervises all photo and multimedia use, covers early childhood education and writes the early ed newsletter. In her nine years at Hechinger, she has covered a range of topics including teacher...

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