When Senator Sonia-Chang Diaz (D-Boston), co-chair of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, taught eighth grade social studies in Lynn, she saw first-hand the consequences of reading failure.
“Even by eighth grade, some students have such a shell built up because they didn’t get what they need in earlier years,” she said. “You try to protect yourself from the feeling of failing by not trying. ‘I’m not going to be good at this so why even try?’ You’ve got to break through that shell before you can work on the literacy skills or the numeracy skills or whatever it is.”
Senator Chang-Diaz made these comments in a recent interview in her Beacon Hill office. She and her co-chair, Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch (D-Wellesley), were appointed in January. The committee has started to hold public hearings on the bills before it. The hearing on An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency (S.188/H.1853) will take place on May 31.
Since 2009, Senator Chang-Diaz has represented Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, Dorchester, Fenway, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill, Roxbury and the South End. In addition to her experience as a teacher, she has served as a senior legislative aide to former state Senator Cheryl Jacques, a political advisor at the Barbara Lee Family Office and director of outreach at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. She earned a BA in political and social thought from the University of Virginia. Below are highlights (edited and condensed) of our conversation. Senator Chang-Diaz reveals her favorite children’s book at the end of this post.
Question: What do you see as the major priorities of the education committee?
Answer: “Closing the achievement gap continues to be at the top of my list, both because of the district I serve and because I see it as a statewide economic and moral imperative. The other is to fight for the resources that our early education and care, K-12 and higher education departments need to complete the charge we have put before them.”
Question: What role do you see for high-quality early education and care?
Answer: “Certainly when looking at the achievement gap, one of the best tools we have in our box is early education. An ounce of prevention. If we can get it right in early education we are so much further along. What happens in those early years shows, for better or worse, years down the road. It’s so clear that what we invest in early education gives more bang for the buck. If you’re looking at it only from a fiscal stewardship perspective, the case is very clear for early education.”
Question: What about reading proficiency by the end of third grade?
Answer: “Proficiency in third grade reading is a huge indicator of the likelihood that a child will graduate from high school. That’s why I introduced the dropout prevention and intervention bill [S.185]. It would expand the early warning index as low as third grade because we know that third grade is so important. Early education is not the only lever we push on in this bill, but it’s absolutely an important piece of the puzzle.”
Answer: What advice do you have for people who want to make high-quality early education and reading proficiency priorities for policymakers?
Answer: “It’s sort of motherhood and apple pie. Everybody agrees with literacy. A lot of it has to do with the political will. How do we make the politics work? There’s no silver bullet here. Part of it is to continue to do the public education about the value. In budget years like the one we have now it’s a really uphill battle even if you have everyone on the side. There are some fairly extraordinary commitments to education in terms of holding the line, not letting the budget knife fall on education. That said, it’s certainly my opinion that we’re not doing enough. We need to continue to connect the dots that that’s where tax dollars are going. Education is our most proven tool for economic development.
“It really takes grass-roots advocacy to make a difference, not just on Beacon Hill, but also to the citizenry and taxpayers. In order to get things done in the Legislature, we really need an organized constituency from outside.”
Once again, I ended an interview by asking about a favorite children’s book because there is a magic to early reading experiences. Senator Chang-Diaz’s favorite? “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, the tale of Max’s fabulous nighttime adventure.
“’Let the wild rumpus begin,’” the senator says, quoting Sendak. “You just can’t beat that. It was a book that really captured my imagination. I had some personal identification with Max as a rebellious child. It was a book my mom would read to me before I was able to read on my own. She was constantly reading and talking to us. She would have read the phone book to us if there was nothing else at hand.”
Here is the first page:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind”…