More than one in four Colorado third-graders is functionally illiterate and, for those 16,000 youngsters, the statistical handwriting is on the wall – if only they could read it.
On Tuesday, education leaders from around the country gathered in Denver for the “Learn to Read, Read to Learn” forum. They shared with Colorado educators and business leaders ideas that have worked in other states to boost early literacy – and thus boost academic success down the road.
As last year’s struggling third-graders move into fourth grade, the emphasis will no longer be on learning to read, but on reading to learn, experts say. Without proficient literacy skills, they’ll never be able to master other academic areas. They’ll fall farther and farther behind.
The chances that they’ll drop out before graduating from high school are four to six times greater than for their classmates who are already proficient in reading. Those who do receive a high school diploma are less likely to go on to college. If, by some miracle, they make it to college, they’re far less likely to succeed.
“When they arrive, they’re not academically prepared and they don’t graduate,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, former president of Colorado State University-Pueblo. “CSU-Pueblo is not a flagship institution. It’s what I call a ‘lifeboat’ institution. The students there want the opportunity to succeed, but many of them start out so far behind. We know who they are. We know by the time they leave third grade who is unlikely to get far.”
Among the presenters at the day-long forum were:
- Eric Smith, former Florida commissioner of education. In 2002, Florida passed a law requiring that students be able to read before they could enter fourth grade.
- Janet Barresi, superintendent of public instruction for Oklahoma, which in May passed legislation similar to Florida’s.
- Hanna Skandera, former deputy commissioner of education in Florida and now New Mexico’s secretary of education. This year, New Mexico lawmakers declined to pass a bill ending social promotion for non-reading third-graders, but they did toughen licensure requirements for early-grade teachers to ensure they all master the science of teaching reading.
“No one state has a monopoly on the right answers,” Garcia said. “We need to embrace good ideas wherever they come from.”
An issue of social justice
Garcia said Colorado’s future economic stability requires a properly educated workforce. But he said the issue goes beyond that.
“It’s not just about the economy,” he said. “This is a social justice issue. Too many of our kids who don’t succeed are children of color, from lower socio-economic families. And children who can’t read by third grade rarely catch up.”
A recent study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that of the fourth-graders who took the national Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test in 2009, 83 percent of children from low-income families failed to reach the “proficient” level in reading.
The Florida experience
Florida has been a national leader in implementing education reform aimed at early literacy. Since 2002, third-graders there are required to meet certain literacy standards as measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT.
- Read “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” from the Annie E. Casey Foundation
- Learn about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort to close the reading achievement gap
- Read a white paper on “Florida’s Education Revolution.”
Those who do not will not be allowed to enter fourth grade. Instead, they repeat third grade, although they spend up to 70 percent of their time that next year focusing on their reading skills.
That first year, 13 percent of Florida third-graders were held back, which sent shock waves through the state.
But since that time, the number of third-graders who fail to reach minimal proficiency in reading has declined by 41 percent, statistics show. And the number of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers who post reading scores at grade-level or above has shown similar increases.
“In Florida, we find that clearly defining expectations is important,” said Smith. “And we define it with a sense of urgency. We want people thinking about this when they get up in the morning.”
Smith noted that, far from being cruel to youngsters who are held back, the retention policy has resulted in marked increases in their reading ability.
He pointed to studies that show those who are retained a year in third grade actually exhibit substantially greater gains in reading comprehension than those whose reading scores were just barely high enough to allow them to pass.
New Mexico, Oklahoma try similar approaches
“It’s not about retention. It’s about intervention,” said Skandera, who hopes to try again to pass a no-social-promotion bill in New Mexico. “If we focus just on retention, we lose sight of what’s important.”
She said educators can’t wait until third grade to begin intervening when students aren’t mastering reading. Rather, kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade teachers must align their instructional strategies so that extra assistance is given to students at the first signs of struggle.
“You’ve got to have ‘stick-to-it-iveness,’” said Skandera, who acknowledges the steep challenges faced in New Mexico, which ranks near the bottom on every academic performance scale.
She said she’s optimistic that New Mexico’s new focus on early-grade literacy and enhanced teacher training will reverse that tide.
“In 1989, Florida’s literacy levels were actually behind New Mexico’s,” she said. “There is no silver bullet. But there are strategic levers for change. Literacy is one of those strategic levers.”
Barresi called the education reform package passed by Oklahoma legislators earlier this year “historic” and said it all began when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited Oklahoma to tout his state’s education reforms.
“A few years ago, Florida was behind Oklahoma in reading. Now, the poorest sub-section of Florida students has better reading scores than all of Oklahoma,” she said.
Barresi said the reforms passed in Oklahoma didn’t require additional spending.
“There was no new money involved,” she said. “We looked at efficiencies of all our programs, and frankly, we defunded some. This is not about establishing new tutoring or summer reading programs. It’s about increasing the capacity of classroom teachers. It’s about doing the best with what you have, targeting your dollars.”
Business leaders want educated workers
Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds, a coalition of business leaders committed to improving the state’s education system, said he hopes Colorado education officials and lawmakers can begin to explore just which policies that have worked elsewhere might work here.
“We’re really interested in finding the right combination of ammunition to respond to this crisis,” he said.
Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that business leaders aren’t experts in education and can’t be in the position of dictating just what policies Colorado adopts.
“What we are is great partners,” she said. “My promise from the business community is this: We will continue to provide support to educators, to challenge the conventional approaches, to partner with experts who depend on research and analysis to tell us where to go. We will take risks, and we will be relentless in our desire to change the system.”