WORCESTER — MassINC, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Urban Initiative at UMass Dartmouth recently hosted a conference — Learning for Growth: The Gateway Cities Education Summit – that explored education issues facing 11 mid-sized cities across the commonwealth. The mayors or city managers of 10 of the 11 cities were there, along with Secretary of Education Paul Reville, superintendents, other education leaders, legislators, funders, policymakers and advocates. Governor Patrick, in a keynote address, expressed concern about the state’s persistent achievement gap and directed Reville to work with the Gateway Cities. “Being first in the nation is a good start,” Patrick said. “Being first in the world is where we need to go.”
One highlight of the conference was economist Andrew Sum’s presentation, “Educational Attainment and the American Dream in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities.” Sum directs the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Although Sum focused on high school completion and college, my colleagues and I felt his research served to underscore the importance of building a system of high-quality early education and focusing on achieving the critical benchmark of reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Research clearly shows that high-quality early education significantly increases the chances that children from low-income families will finish high school and attend college.
The statistics Sum presented were dramatic. Almost 97% of the Class of 2009 graduated from high school in four years in 10 affluent school districts – Acton-Boxborough, Concord-Carlisle, Dover-Sherborn, Medfield, Needham, Sharon, Wayland, Wellesley, Weston and Westwood. Fewer than 60% of students graduated high school on time in Sum’s sample of 10 urban districts – Lawrence, Chelsea, Fall River, Holyoke, Springfield, Fitchburg, Chicopee, New Bedford, Boston and Lowell.
The contrast is equally stark for other measures. Almost all (97%) of the Class of 2009 in the affluent districts enrolled in four-year colleges, compared with less than half (49%) in the large urban districts. In the affluent districts, more than 90% of ninth graders will finish high school on time and enroll in a four-year college; in the large urban districts, that number is 21%. Sum also noted a disturbing gender gap in many of the large urban districts. In Lawrence, for instance, 10% of freshmen boys – and 20% of freshmen girls — are expected to graduate high school on time and enroll in a four-year college or university.
In the subsequent panel discussion, MassINC executive vice president John Schneider asked Reville about early childhood education. “It’s probably the deepest frustration to us,” Reville replied. “With the economic crisis we have not been able to do more.” Reville noted that with the achievement gap evident well before children enter school, it is important to engage families and communities in support of children’s learning. “We have adopted a goal of reading proficiency by grade three,” he added.
Schneider also emphasized the importance of third grade reading proficiency. “That is one of the most significant indicators,” Schneider said. “We need to pay attention to third grade literacy.”