Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, kicked off a three-day visit to the commonwealth by designating Massachusetts a State Pacesetter for its efforts to improve children’s early literacy. In accepting the award, Secretary of Education Paul Reville called the recognition “a down payment on work to come.”
“It’s a story about leadership at all levels. It’s a story about leadership at the top and at the grass roots,” Smith, who is also senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said as he presented a certificate to Reville Monday evening in Boston. “You understand you have an achievement gap. You have put a stake in the ground and are doing the hard work.”
The presentation came at a dinner for philanthropic and community leaders sponsored by Strategies for Children (SFC). “We’re very proud of where we are and how far we’ve come,” Reville said as he accepted a Pacesetter certificate, “but we’re acutely conscious of the achievement gaps that persist. We have a long way to go. Doing well is not good enough.”
Although Massachusetts leads the nation on many education measures, 39% of third graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2012 MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), and performance has remained virtually unchanged since 2001. Among children from low-income families, 60% lag in reading.
The commonwealth took an important step toward addressing the problem when Governor Deval Patrick signed An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency into law last month. The new law establishes an Early Literacy Expert Panel to advise state education agencies on research-based strategies to improve the language and literacy development of children from birth to age 9. At Monday’s dinner, Smith presented the bill’s two lead sponsors – Senator Katherine Clark and Representative Marty Walz – with copies of the State Pacesetter certificate.
Yesterday morning at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Smith addressed almost 100 people attending an SFC-sponsored meeting on momentum to improve children’s reading proficiency. He presented State Pacesetter certificates to Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Department of Early Education and Care; Representative Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education; Representative Paul Brodeur; SFC President and CEO Carolyn Lyons; Paul O’Brien, chairman of SFC’s board; Amy O’Leary, director of SFC’s Early Education for All Campaign.
Smith spoke of his alarm at the large number of children, many of them from low-income families, who struggle with reading in third grade. Citing concerns about the nation’s ability to compete in an innovation-driven global economy, he spoke of his hope that the time for change has come.
“One of these days we may have to explain to our children and grandchildren how this was possible. How can we know as much as we know and spend as much as we spend” and still have this problem? he asked. “There is good news, too,” he added. “There really is in this country a broad and deep consensus that our nation needs and deserves a generation of high school graduates who are ready for college and career…. We can ill afford the cost of poverty, and we can ill afford the underdevelopment of a quarter of our children.”
In addition to Smith and certificate recipients, Nonie Lesaux of the Harvard Graduate School of Education addressed the gathering. Lesaux is author of “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” the 2010 report commissioned by SFC to guide its reading proficiency campaign. It informs An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency as well as SFC’s best practices initiative, which includes creation of a targeted “learning network” of a small number of communities committed to moving the needle on third-grade reading and a broader effort to help communities across the state implement the report’s recommendations.
“We know more today than we ever have about reading and language development,” Lesaux said. It is, she said, “a dynamic process” that begins at birth and happens in all environments – home, classroom, grocery store, library – where children learn. “There’s no question we’re well poised,” she said. “We could, on behalf of children, take it to the next level by applying an even more critical lens to what we’re doing.”
Noting that “we’re ultimately trying to change behaviors,” Lesaux described a continuum that starts with raising awareness – periodic independent learning opportunities, public service announcements, pamphlets — and ends with changed behavior and improved reading outcomes.
“We have a lot of effort on the raising awareness side and need a lot more heft and resources on the changing behavior side,” Lesaux said. “It’s going to take more time and resources. This isn’t just about more money, but about reallocating resources so we focus first on depth and then reaching more individuals.”
The morning closed with an impassioned call to action from John Bissell, executive vice president of the Greylock Federal Credit Union and co-chair of the Pittsfield Promise, a coalition in that Western Massachusetts city working to improve children’s reading proficiency.
Businesspeople “are accustomed to taking clear, compelling data and acting on it,” Bissell said. “I am incapable of sitting and listening to the same problems being talked about over and over without doing something about it. We have been looking at the same data for decades….
“If I knew my business was threatened by a flood, any business leader would pay attention to that. Yet we know the floodwaters are rising in our communities,” he said. “We know what needs to be done.”
Smith’s visit to Massachusetts also includes meetings with leaders in Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester – the five Bay State communities that applied for a 2012 All-America City Award, which this year focused on improving early literacy. Springfield and Pittsfield were named All-America Cities, and Worcester was a finalist. In addition, in June the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading recognized Springfield and Boston as Community Pacesetters.