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reprinted courtesy Creative Commons license.
More than 25 years ago, A Nation at Risk raised the issue. High-level research summits on children’s achievement have flagged the problem for decades. Last year, even military leaders expressed their concern. We here at New America have tried to drive the point home too: It is beyond time to address the literacy problem in this country. More than two-thirds of fourth-graders are not reading at grade level.
Yesterday another voice arrived to amplify what is becoming a rallying cry. The Annie E. Casey Foundation
announced the launch of a decade-long national campaign to get all children reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
The announcement comes at what we hope will be a time of more fervent attention to literacy programs at the federal level. The demise of the Reading First program, which was cut amid controversy in 2008, has left a hole
. The Obama administration has proposed a newly consolidated literacy initiative
that should help, but we have some concerns
over whether it will make enough investments in the critical birth-to-8 years of children’s lives. The LEARN Act, a legislative proposal for preK-12 literacy programs, makes many smart moves but deserves scrutiny
The launch of the Casey campaign came with a new report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,
produced by KIDS COUNT
, an annual foundation project. The report uses data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Census Bureau and other sources to make the case for what undermines current efforts and why proficiency matters.
At the campaign’s launch event yesterday, for example, leaders denounced the current standards system in which states set their own (usually low) bars. “We’ve established an acceptance of the bottom,” said Michael L. Eskew, chair of the foundation’s board and former CEO of UPS. “We get a false impression of how kids are doing.”
Ralph Smith, Casey’s executive vice president, said the proficiency statistic – the fact that 68 percent of fourth graders are not reading well enough to correctly answer questions about grade level texts –“has stagnated somewhere in the zone between abysmal and catastrophic.” Poor reading ability, he said, undermines efforts to end poverty, close the achievement gap, be prepared for college and careers, and compete in the global economy.
The Casey report issues four high-level recommendations:
1) Create an aligned system of education and care from birth to third grade.
2) Encourage parents to be “co-producers” of good outcomes for their children.
3) Prioritize “results-driven” initiatives that transform low-performing schools.
4) End the problems of chronic absence and summer learning loss
Here at Early Ed Watch
, we applaud the Casey initiative and agree whole-heartedly with these recommendations, in addition to the need for a common set of standards across states. (See our multiple posts about
the Common Core State Standards Initiative.)
We were also glad to see the Obama administration reiterating its support of and recognition of the importance of bolstering literacy programs. In attendance were two officials: Jacqueline Jones, adviser on early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, and Roberto Rodriguez, President Obama’s special assistant on education.
But we cannot help but have many questions about what’s next. There are myriad areas that need more attention when it comes to tackling low rates of reading proficiency. For example, we know that language development is key to literacy success. Will we see more focus on policies that foster language development? If so, we will need to start as early as possible – the day a child is born if not before. And we will need to focus on promoting childcare and preschool professionals who have the knowledge base to introduce children to new vocabulary, encourage their questions about the world, and gently guide moments of make-believe play that may strengthen the brain’s wiring for learning.
Will there be a recognition of the role that media and technology can play in building literacy skills when done well? And how can we do that while also dispelling the myths and commercial marketed products leading parents to think that that babies need videos and flashcards to learn to read? We need much more research in this area to be able to carve out policy recommendations that will help.
What can we do ensure that all children, no matter their family's income level, get access to rich content – including well-stocked libraries and daily real-alouds of high-quality children’s literature – while also providing research-based instruction on the ABCs, phonics and phonemic awareness?
And how should all of this be tailored to ensure that dual-language learners are not left behind?
The Casey Foundation (which, in case you are wondering, is not one of the Early Education Initiative
’s funders) is already showing a strong awareness of these issues. Its report mentions the importance of content-rich programs, qualified experienced teachers, and extra supports for children whose first language is not English, as well as the need for technology to support learning and assessment. The recommendations on page 36 represent a smart roadmap for moving forward. We look forward to learning more about the ideas and programs that will precipitate from this new campaign.