Equity – The 4 Most Important Years in School

All students thrive when equity is prioritized in educational decision-making. For American students, not all grade levels or school years are created equally. There are some school years that are much more critical as indicators for success than others.  It is important that schools invest extra support and resources in these important grade levels to make sure all students thrive.

The American Education system has been left mostly unchanged for over 100 years, and has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. Its design was formulated to create a steady workforce for the emerging cities and factories. The “factory model” for education grew out of a need to produce workers prepared for industrialized jobs. Even the concept of education with “raw materials (students)” being “manufactured (teachers)” in centralized “factories (schools)” with assembly-line progressions, rigid routines, and protocols (end of the day bell) has an all too familiar ring.

Schools were age-grouped and assimilated within the “factory process” to follow a progression of skill acquisitions.  The school institutions grew as factories grew, but the changes since post-World War II have been minimal. What has been left out of the ‘factory model” is the alignment to the best research in learning theory and human development. It has been a slow revolution, but effective school systems have found creative ways to impact student learning, and move away from the traditional methods and practices.

Having participated in the education world for almost 50 years, I have been a keen observer to the entire K-12 education process. What I have discovered is the importance and dependence to a few key school years; Kindergarten, 3rd Grade, 7th Grade, and 10th Grade need additional attention for the overall success of a student.

7th Grade

I spent the first half of my career with this important year as a middle math teacher and after school basketball coach. There is a genuine art form to teaching 7th grade math to twelve and thirteen year old children. A skilled 7th grade teacher must be able to balance mathematical content with a tremendous amount of patience and understanding for the needs of adolescent children. Students of this age are naturally “wiggly”, and are easily distracted.

Particularly challenging for students at this grade level, is their introduction to the study of abstract concepts in Algebra. The research work for adolescents (ages 11-13) suggest  that the learning of Algebra is very dependent on their brain development. Not all children reach this growth phase at the same time, so many students may struggle understanding the abstract processes. Teachers have to be prepared to respond to those students, when necessary, by providing more concrete examples to support their learning.

As an Assistant Principal, I saw a large proportion of 7th grade boys being sent to the office for disciplinary reasons. Several of those students were repeat offenders being sent for class disruptions and frequent off-task behavior. I found many of them to be very bright students, but they possessed a genuine sense of disengagement. Most told me that they liked school and their teachers, but they just did not like the learning.

During a meeting with a particular student, I asked , “When did you convince yourself that you could not be successful? What grade level did you decide that you were ‘dumb’? ” Without hesitation, he said, “Third Grade!”

I made it a routine to ask other students the same question. The overwhelming majority of students had the same answer.  What was it about their 3rd grade experience that led these students end up in the office in 7th grade? As I worked with other middle school students in other schools, I continued to discover a connection between middle school misbehavior and 3rd grade.

I finally received my answer when I was appointed to the position of Elementary Principal…

3rd Grade

I enjoyed the challenge of working with elementary-aged students. As a trained and experienced math teacher, I needed a much larger and more comprehensive view of learning . My primary focus was learning the ‘teaching and learning” of Reading. The work was particularly urgent, because the school I was assigned to had a majority population of English Learners. In addition, this particular town had a large number of children from the indigenous Indian tribes of Mexico, who spoke their own unique language. This complicated the instruction, because many were learning Spanish as their second language, and English as their third.

During many teacher trainings that I attended, I frequently heard references to 3rd grade reading scores. It was stated that California used 3rd grade reading scores to project the number of prison beds that would be needed in the future. I found that to be a remarkable statement, so I did some additional investigating. I found numerous articles that debunked this myth in a literal sense, but there is much to be said about the predictive correlation for 3rd grade reading scores.

“A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer,” read the report.

The consequence of that data is that incarceration percentages  increase for people who lack  a high school diploma: .

On any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates, according to a new study of the effects of dropping out of school in an America where demand for low-skill workers is plunging.

The picture is even bleaker for African-Americans, with nearly one in four young black male dropouts incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day, the study said. That compares with about one in 14 young, male, white, Asian or Hispanic dropouts.

Why 3rd grade? The reading instruction in 3rd grade changes from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. In 3rd grade,  students are exposed to multi-syllable words in their instructional lessons. The decoding skills taught in the K-2 grades are a necessary prerequisite, as are the use of contextual clues to determine meaning of words. Without these primary skills, a student will be at a significant educational disadvantage going forward.

The single greatest educational challenge for any student is learning to read! There is not another accomplishment in school that will have a bigger impact on a child’s future!

In a similar manner, 3rd grade students are exposed to a new mathematical concept; multiplication. Most of us can retell our own 3rd grade experience with learning the multiplication tables.  Some students figured out the numbers much faster than others. Most of us enjoyed the feeling of success from having completed our “twelvsies”, without any consideration for the  students who were still stuck on their “threesies” and “foursies”.

The double challenge of struggling to read and the obstacle of multiplication tables is insurmountable for too many 3rd grade students. If these struggling students do not receive intensive intervention to catch up to their peers, the knowledge gap increases. In 4th and 5th grade, these students start using coping skills to avoid being identified as “slow’ or “dumb”.

In most cases, these struggling students experience a significant transition to a middle school, and by 7th grade their coping skills are more sophisticated and demonstrative. It is safer to be kicked out of class than it is to be embarrassed in front of their classmates. Their academic identity is completely underdeveloped and their self-image is negative in nature.


Kindergarten (German for “children’s garden”) became established in United States schools in the early 1900’s. It was institutionalized as a support for low-income working parents and place for the development of socialization skills. It was not until the 1980’s that academic standards and the teaching of reading was fully integrated into the Kindergarten curriculum. For many of us, it was a half-day experience for playing, dancing and singing with other children our age. Today’s Kindergarten classes are full days with academically enriched activities and a focused approach to a Reading curriculum. Students need to understand much more than letter and sound recognition to be prepared for the rigor of 1st grade.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that the relevance and importance of Kindergarten has been communicated effectively to all parents. As a new elementary principal in Oakland, I was stunned to find that the chronic absenteeism rate at the school was highest in Kindergarten. Chronic absenteeism, as defined by the state of California, meant that a student was missing more than 10% of the school year (18 or more days). The percentage of chronically absent Kindergartners at the school was 47 percent, with a higher proportion of African-American students missing days. Almost half of the students were losing significant educational learning opportunities, particularly in Reading. I learned later that this was not just a school-related issue, but district-wide. As a result, the data showed that over 40% of all African American males were behind grade level in Reading by the end of 1st grade. Furthermore, many children of color particularly boys are misidentified in the early grades as special education students.

As our school investigated the root causes and possible solutions to reduce the impact of this challenge, we learned that there was a disconnection between school communication and parent perception. The feedback from many parents was that Kindergarten was not as important as 1st grade. In many cases, the attendance was centered on convenience for the parents. Some saw Kindergarten as a drop-in program, where students attendance was not mandatory. It was not out of the ordinary for parents to drop off the students hours after school had begun or pick them up at lunch time. It took a concerted and strategic effort by all staff and parent volunteers to educate the community about the importance of Kindergarten. With the extra attention, we did see a reduction for the Kindergarten chronic absenteeism rate by half after one year. Unfortunately a lot of damage had already been done. Many of our 3rd and 4th grade students were already two or more years below grade level in Reading.

10th Grade

Why 10th grade? There are some that will say that 9th grade is the most important high school year, but following my logic , I have one belief and one conclusion:

10th Grade is the year students make the conscious decision to drop out of school!

9th grade marks the transition year from middle school to high school and represents its own challenge for students, but it is 10th grade when students are most likely to give up.

  The Challenge

Missing large quantities of education time as early as Kindergarten means many students are already performing below grade level standards in Reading by 2nd grade. Students who fall behind their peers in 3rd grade develop coping behaviors to protect themselves from being identified as struggling learners. By 7th grade, these same students are disengaged from classroom learning, and look for opportunities to be kicked out of class. By 10th grade, they are disconnected from all support systems and begin to withdraw from school entirely.

The end result is an accelerated process to move students from education to incarceration. This cycle needs to be interrupted early in school to prevent the inevitable before 10th grade.

The Solution

I have a variety of ideas for combatting this challenge, particularly in low income neighborhoods. In a perfect school district, here are a sample of suggestions:

  • Cities, School Districts and neighborhoods need to work collaboratively to prevent Kindergarten absenteeism through communication and community outreach.
  • Schools need to have intervention teams (School Attendance) in place for early identification and prevention of chronic absenteeism.
  • A collaborative team Multi-Services Team (MST) or Coordination of Services Team (COST) of teachers including special education, nurse, mental health practitioners, counselors, social workers, family engagement specialists, and administration need to be convened to identify struggling students and provide appropriate socio-emotional support. This team should also serve as the gatekeeping process for special education assessments to prevent over-identification.
  • A school should have a highly functioning team of parent volunteers to actively engage and perform outreach duties to the school community.
  • School systems need to be created and implemented for early identification and immediate strategic intervention for any student who starts to perform below grade level benchmarks.
  • School systems should have the capability and flexibility to adjust elementary teaching assignments to meet the needs of students. For example: ability-based leveled Reading instruction for grades 1-4.
  • Before and after school intensive intervention for struggling students which is both targeted and strategic.
  • Built-in teacher pullout time for collaboration and teacher-team problem solving.
  • Site-based differentiated staff development determined by data-driven decision-making.
  • Strategic and Targeted support for all students for the 6th/9th grade transition years (ie: counseling, study skills, electives)
  • Project-based learning with action research themes and student exhibitions
  • K-5 elementary schools with 6-8 middle schools and 9-12 High Schools.
    • 6th grade classrooms are self-contained with 5th and 6th grade teachers looping each year with their students
    • 9th grade students receive additional support classes such as AVID with 8th and 9th grade teachers also looping with their students each year.

These are just a few of my suggestions. I will post more and lay out a blueprint for success at a later time.

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One Response to “Equity – The 4 Most Important Years in School

  • mike nelsen
    2 years ago

    panama elementary were the best years for me, i lost my way in high school with too much pier pressure

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