The other day a friend asked me how many children in Memphis are ready for kindergarten. What a great question!

But what a difficult question to answer! In one sense, all 5 year olds in Memphis are “ready for kindergarten” in the sense that they are all (or at least are supposed to be) enrolled in kindergarten. In this sense, the true policy question might be: “are schools in Memphis ready to educate the kindergarteners they will inherit?”

But I suspect my friend really wanted to know if our children were prepared to successfully make the transition to formal schooling. Again, though, this is a tough question, and one that we don’t currently have the right kind of information to answer. A number of years ago we assessed kindergarten readiness in Memphis using a diagnostic measure called the Developing Skills Checklist (DSC), which asked children a series of questions designed to evaluate their cognitive development.

Scores on the DSC painted a bleak picture. On some dimensions of the test, only a quarter of our children scored in the range considered “ready” for kindergarten. But what does this mean? Where they used the same exam, nearly all large American cities have similarly low rates of school readiness.

In an effort to know more about the specific skills that children need to work on when they reached kindergarten, Memphis City Schools has since built a different measure of kindergarten readiness (the Kindergarten Readiness Indicator, or KRI), which assesses children’s pre-reading and pre-math skills.

But the KRI doesn’t really let us answer my friend’s question either. This is because the measure isn’t (yet) tied to children’s later academic achievement, and it isn’t calibrated (or normed) to other districts. As a result, we can’t use this measure to talk about the likely strengths and struggles that our children will have as they make their way through school. Consequently, it’s a difficult measure to use if we want to talk about whether our children are reaching school ready to learn – either in terms of how they are likely to fare, or in comparison to other places, or in comparison to our own past.

At the same time, the KRI does give us meaningful insights into the relative readiness of different cohorts of children (for example children who attended a strong curriculum based program such as Head Start or Pre-Kindergarten as compared to children who were at home up until they reached kindergarten). As we would suspect, children who attend a high-quality, center-based early learning program the year before they start kindergarten score significantly higher on measures of kindergarten readiness than children who did not attend such a program.

Maybe a better question would be: What does it mean to be ready for school? School readiness involves health as well as social, emotional and cognitive development. Kindergarten teachers tell us that social and behavioral skills are equally, if not more, important as cognitive skills for success in school. How kindergartners fare on each of these dimensions, in turn, are reflections of the full range of their experiences during the first years of life.

This is because the first five years of life are a period of astonishing brain development, and young children learn through their interactions with their environments and through their relationships with family and other caregivers in their lives. Everything that happens to those children, both good and bad, contributes to the architecture of their developing brain. In turn, it is this brain architecture that provides the foundation for children’s later readiness for school and their subsequent academic success.

Will a child develop a rich vocabulary? Will he become a strong reader? Is she likely to be held back a grade, or will she graduate on time and enroll in college? The foundation for each of these aspects of the student and adult a child will become is established long before he ever reaches school. In fact, there is strong evidence that suggests that as much as half of the academic achievement gap that separates children in high school was present long before those children ever entered kindergarten.

Another promising way to think about school readiness is in terms of pathways to early childhood success. Can we identify and grow experiences and interventions that lead to stronger early social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive brain development for children in Memphis?

To do this, we need to combine a clear understanding of the early experiences of our children with reliable measures of their school readiness. (Ideally, we would look beyond just cognitive measures to include the dimensions of health, social, and emotional well-being). If we’re careful about how we do this, it becomes possible to connect these pieces of information in order to identify the types of early experiences and interventions that help to protect children from the risks in their environment, helping us to understand what efforts to promote in order to support developmental well-being and school readiness. On this front, we can look to the path-breaking efforts of a number of other cities and states for ideas about how to collect and connect these pieces of information.

At the same time, kindergarten readiness means ready families. We want to grow the level of understanding among families in our community about how early childhood experiences matter for children’s development, school readiness and academic success. Ready families would understand how parenting matters, the difference that early experiences can make in the lifetimes of their children, what to look for – and insist on – in early childhood care and education, how to help their children successfully make the transition to school and to reading. Moreover, ready families would be excited about school readiness, would understand how readiness will be measured, and would work to help their children get ready.

Ready schools are the third key part of this story.  Our goals on this dimension include a vision of a continuum of children successfully transitioning from pre-k into kindergarten, and successfully progressing through elementary and secondary school, on to graduation and into college. Ready schools acknowledge that children come from a wide range of backgrounds and with wildly different levels of preparation and development. Ideally, ready schools meet these children where they are in order to nurture their capacity to be learners. Ready schools are eager to work with parents and other community groups to change curricula and methods to respond to evolving cohorts of children. Jerry Weist, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County Maryland, describes successive waves of pre-kindergarteners as “rolling thunder,” demanding instructors at each grade level tear up their existing curriculum and their expectations in an effort to better respond to the needs of increasingly better prepared cohorts of young children.

What a great goal to strive for!