Five Massachusetts cities and Strategies for Children last week announced the creation of a statewide network committed to aligning research, policy and practice to move the needle on third grade reading, a critical educational benchmark that strongly predicts children’s chances of success in school and beyond.
The announcement came at a conference on the issue in Denver, convened by the National Civic League and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. It drew more than 500 people from 124 communities across the country that had applied for the All-America City Award, which this year focused on improving third grade reading. Two Bay State cities – Springfield and Pittsfield – are among the 14 winners. (Learn about Springfield’s Read! campaign and the Pittsfield Promise.)
Teams from Worcester, Boston and Holyoke also attended the conference. Boston and Springfield were recognized as PaceSetter communities, Boston for its summer learning initiatives and Springfield for its leadership and efforts to boost school attendance. And Worcester, along with Pittsfield and Springfield, was one of 32 finalists for the award.
As exciting as the recognition is, however, the true value of the competition comes in communities’ ongoing commitment to address a problem whose roots lie in children’s earliest years and whose solution must focus on children from birth to age 9. In Massachusetts, 39% of third graders – including 60% of children from low-income families — scored below proficient in reading on the 2011 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Equally disturbing, performance over the past decade has remained virtually stagnant. Research tells us that three-quarters of children who struggle with reading in third grade will struggle in high school and are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than children who read proficiently.
The Massachusetts teams announced the formation of the statewide network during the time allotted at the Denver conference for individual finalists to present their plans, reports Carolyn Lyons, CEO of Strategies for Children (SFC). Instead, all five Bay State teams and Lyons took the stage en masse to declare their intention to learn from each other as they work to improve the literacy of children in their cities. A few weeks earlier, leaders from the five cities met in Worcester, at a session that SFC convened to facilitate the kind of collaboration on display in Denver.
Meanwhile on Beacon Hill, a bill is making its way through the Massachusetts Legislature that would provide crucial guidance for local efforts like these. An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency would establish an Early Literacy Expert Panel to advise state education agencies on the alignment, coordination and implementation – from early education and care through the primary grades — of language-rich curriculum, effective instructional practices, professional development and training, developmentally appropriate assessment, and family partnership. It would advise on the implementation of existing state plans for early literacy development.
The bill’s 60 co-sponsors come from all corners of the commonwealth. Representatives of more than 40 organizations — including the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, United Way of Central Massachusetts, YMCAs of Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Head Start Association — have urged legislative leaders to approve the bill before the current session ends on July 31.
“Together, the formation of the Massachusetts network and the legislation pending on Beacon Hill signal the kind of multi-pronged, state and local approach needed to address a problem that has proved difficult to solve,” Lyons said. “Momentum is building. Now is the time to harness it for the benefit of our children and the commonwealth’s future vitality.”