An Economic Development Strategy: Getting All Students Reading by Third Grade

Last week, the National Governors Association released a new report, A Governor’s Guide to Early Literacy: Getting All Students Reading by Third Grade.”   The Governors’ interest is clear: to increase economic growth, every state must cultivate a future workforce that is highly literate, knowledgeable, and skilled.  Third grade is a critical juncture for students as they turn the corner from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

What’s the big deal about third grade reading ability?  A 2012 Annie E. Casey Foundation report, Double Jeopardy:  How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty  Influence High School Graduation,” found:

  • Those who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school.
  • For students reading below grade level in third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater.
  • For children who were poor for at least a year and also not reading proficiently, the proportion failing to graduate is 26 percent.
  • For children who were poor, lived in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and also not reading proficiently, the proportion rose to 35 percent.

What’s the data show for 4th grade reading ability? The latest testing data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) based on 4th grade 2011 test scores found:

  • For low-income children eligible for free and reduced price lunch, 18 percent read at a “proficient” level, while the remaining students did not – 34 percent reading at a “basic” level and 48 percent reading below basic (or below grade level).
  • For children in families not eligible for free and reduced price lunch, test scores are reversed  – 48 percent read at a “proficient level,” 34 percent read at a “basic” level and 18 percent read below basic (or below grade level).

    States with Highest Proportion of School Children in Poverty

    States with the Highest Proportion of School Children in Poverty

A new report by the Southern Education Foundation, A New Majority, Low Income Students in the South and the Nation,” found that a majority of public school students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade are low-income in 17 states (13 southern states and 4 in the west).  Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 71 percent of students in Mississippi, 68 percent of students in New Mexico,  66 percent of students from Louisiana, 61 percent of students from Oklahoma, and 60 percent of students from Arkansas were from low-income families.

The National Governors Association report links the inability to read at grade level with the consequences for such failure – higher rates of school dropouts, a mismatch between employer needs and educated workers, an increased likelihood of public assistance receipt, and higher rates of incarceration.   Research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that nearly two-thirds of future jobs will require at least some level of post-secondary education.

Given the nation’s economic prosperity will depend on an increasingly well educated workforce, the NGA report offers guidance to policymakers to better support the language and literacy skills of children from early childhood through third grade.  The data is clear, reading skills matter for school performance and success.

The NGA report calls for a broad systemic effort to bridge the gap between research and current policies – in short, an ambitious birth-to-third grade agenda.

The report recommends five policy actions to ensure that all children are reading by third grade:

Action 1: Adopt comprehensive language and literacy standards and curricula for early care and education programs and kindergarten through third grade.

Action 2: Expand access to high-quality child care, pre-kindergarten, and full-day kindergarten.

Action 3: Engage and support parents as partners in early language and literacy development.

Action 4: Equip professionals providing care and education with the skills and knowledge to support early learning and literacy development.

Action 5: Develop mechanisms to promote continuous improvement and accountability.

What the NGA report makes clear is that “starting at kindergarten is too late.”  Language and literacy development start at birth and gaps in achievement appear well before kindergarten entry. High quality early learning experiences can help close the gap. 

The report says leadership by the nation’s Governors is critical “to ensure policies and processes that reflect the research on early language and literacy development.”  The report says that state agencies and practitioners need the resources and capabilities to promote better policy and to measure progress toward continuous improvement.  The report concludes by calling on Governors to engage public and private stakeholders from outside the usual education policy arena.

Bottom Line Message:  The research is clear. Early learning settings matter for school success and for future economic prosperity.  We’re in this together: with 17 states with a majority of children in poverty in our public schools, we can’t afford to wait any longer before developing and implementing a birth through grade 3 language and literacy agenda.

Federal Government Shutdown: Voters Hold the Trump Card

Day 2 of the federal government shutdown.  What’s the latest? It’s unclear.  How long will it last? It’s unclear. What’s at stake? Plenty…  from the well-being of millions of American families to the framework for our legislative democracy.

Every day in America, there are families who depend in some way on the government.  Some of them are low wage families with children who depend on modest assistance in order to work, including

Other families with older children may be depending on college loans (grants continue, loans are a question at this point).  Nearly 20 million students attend college every year with about 12 million who take out loans to afford the cost.  The actual number couldn’t be verified for this blog post since the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is federally funded and its web site is shut down.

The collateral impact of Congress’ inability to pass a budget on time is far beyond the 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed.  Throughout the country, states are determining whether bridges will be inspected, whether child care programs will be inspected, potential impacts that exceed the closure of national parks and museums. For tourists, Congress’ inaction is an inconvenience, for families whose budgets and well-being are directly affected, it’s much more personal.

It’s no secret that Congress is polarized and unable to agree to budget priorities.  Highlights from the last few years demonstrate a disturbing trend.

  • In the face of a debt ceiling crisis back in 2011, Congress agreed to a budget deal setting up a committee to recommend ways to reduce the deficit.  The penalty was a series of across the board cuts to be imposed (referred to as sequesters) in the event that Congress was unable to reduce the deficit.
  • As the first sequester neared in January 2013, a Congress unable to garner consensus on an alternative to the impending sequester, kicked the can to March. In March, when Congress was unable to reach a deal, the sequester was imposed on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year.

While it’s true that the government shut down for several weeks back in 1995 and 1996, it wasn’t a complete shut down (some appropriations bills had passed) and the fiscal impasse wasn’t exacerbated by an impending fiscal nightmare: the expiration of the nation’s debt ceiling (or borrowing authority) on or around October 16. (The government actually breached its $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in May but has been using emergency measures to keep operating since that time). The day of reckoning when the government’s borrowing authority will need to be increased is around the corner with experts predicting mid to late October as doomsday.

How did we get here?  Not overnight.  Last spring there was a charge for both the Senate and the House to pass a budget. They both passed budget resolutions (i.e, a measure analogous to a fiscal blueprint for committees to follow), but the budgets they passed were polar opposites.  It was clear that if appropriation bills were passed by each chamber complying with the budget parameters set forth in each chamber’s budget blueprint, it would be difficult to negotiate the differences. Numerous times since last April, the Senate tried to name conferees on the budget resolution to work out the differences but were blocked each time by the House majority.

Taegan Goddard's Wonk Wire Budget Table

Taegan Goddard’s Wonk Wire Budget Table

If the issue at hand was about budget priorities alone, it would be a challenge to reach an agreement. But, over the past few years, spending has been cut.  Federal budget data is crystal clear on that point and the most recent budget continuing resolution (CR) further bares that out. (See Figure 1).

However, the issue this go-round is ideological – it’s about support for and opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”  What’s the issue?  After much debate, the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148) became law on March 23, 2010. In June of 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Open enrollment in the health care marketplace has begun.

Members of Congress can like or dislike the Affordable Care Act, but the fact is that it is the law and has passed Constitutional muster.  A small minority in Congress want another bite at the apple. That bite has led to the shutdown of the federal government. The will of the minority has temporarily trumped the majority. Is that what the Founding Fathers had in mind as they drafted the Constitution? That the will of the minority could bring the government to a standstill and wreak havoc on the economy? Who actually is trumped? The American people.

Today, the President convened the House and Senate leadership to discuss the way forward on the budget impasse.  It was a private meeting with no staff and little has been reported in the press.  So, where does that leave things?

  • For programs assisting low income families with children, states are reviewing any unobligated balances of prior year money to see if and how long they might forward-fund the federal government during the shutdown as federal funds to states have stopped.
  • For tourists to our nation’s national parks and museums, the doors are closed.
  • For federal employees, paychecks have stopped.
  • For most Americans who depend on public services of some type, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether services are available, delayed, or stopped.

Historians will write about how our framework for democracy has been held hostage to the ideology of a minority whose will was surpassed by a law and a Supreme Court ruling. What’s the lesson learned? Register to vote. Show up to vote.  Vote for those who want good policy to promote our people and economy.  Vote against ideological extremists who are willing to shut down the government when they disagree with majority rule.  The final trump card is held by voters.  #EnoughAlready