One of the highlights of my week off was the opportunity to spend lots of quality time with my nephew. He’s almost 2, soaks up words like a sponge and overall is insanely adorable. The time I spend with him is never enough, and I love the challenge of finding new ways to entertain him. Way beneath the surface of our time together, there’s always a bit of sadness when I contrast his development with my students.

What does a toddler have to do with my third graders? Well, developmentally, a lot. Watching this baby develop into a little person is an amazing front row seat to the development of the young brain. It also has given me a deep appreciation for what research already shows: A great deal of academic success is established before a child even enters the classroom.

This is not to say I am relinquishing my responsibility as a teacher. It is my job to help students regardless of their performance when they enter my classroom. In fact, helping kids struggling below grade level is a major reward of teaching in a high-need school as well. That said, I can’t help thinking about the missing pieces in many of my students’ formative years.

This is not about me pointing fingers or placing blame onto the shoulders of parents. I know that parents have a more difficult job than I can ever appreciate until I take that responsibility myself. But I do think that the role of years 0-5 in a child’s future success should not be discounted. The number of words my nephew is learning daily sometimes seems to rival the vocabulary of some of my students. By the time he enters kindergarten he will have thousands of words at his disposal and the means to communicate at a level largely absent from my classroom. I relish the challenge of bringing my struggling readers (speakers and writers) to grade level and above. But if we’re serious as a society about closing the achievement gap we need to look beyond “high standards” and standardized testing and find a way to erase the disadvantages that begin before kids even enter school.