Reading for Life

If you're reading this, that probably means that someone, once upon a time, taught you to read. Most likely, this happened sometime in your first few years of elementary school -- -kindergarten or first, second, or third grade -- building the vocabulary and language skills you began developing earlier in your life, starting in infancy and even before you were born. Not surprisingly, then, you probably remember little about your laborious progress acquiring the skills that form the building blocks of reading -- recognizing the connection between print and meaning, learning to associate printed letters with sounds, putting those sounds together to form words, and developing the vocabulary and background knowledge to derive meaning from words on the page. By now, those skills have become internalized, old hat to you -- so much that now, as you read this, you're hardly cognizant of the mechanics of what you're doing.

Unfortunately, for too many children in the United States today, this story does not have a similarly happy ending. A shocking number of our nation's children are not learning to read anywhere near as well as they need to in order to succeed in school and negotiate the realities of our increasingly information-based and verbal world.

Consider these sobering findings from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading -- a federally administered annual assessment that monitors national educational achievement and trends and serves as "the nation's report card." On the 2009 Reading NAEP, only one in three fourth-graders read at grade level. Fully one-third of fourth-graders tested lacked even the most basic literacy skills. And as these children progress through their schooling, they fall even further behind their peers.

Even more striking are the large disparities in the reading skills of students from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While 42 percent of white fourth-graders read on grade level, only 16 percent of black youngsters do. And only 17 percent of fourth-graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches (an indicator of poverty) read at grade level, compared to 45 percent of non-low-income students.

Most sobering of all, American fourth-graders performed no better in reading in 2009 than they did two years previously. That's a troubling departure from most of the past decade, during which fourth-grade literacy improved slowly but steadily -- particularly for low-income and minority students. From 2000 to 2007, the percentage of low-income students at the lowest level of reading achievement fell from 62 percent to 50 percent. While no one knows exactly what accounted for this progress, experts credit expansion in access to quality pre-K programs, standards-based education reforms targeted to the elementary years, and early-literacy initiatives as potential causes. But that progress seems to have come to a halt since 2007, even as reading results for eighth-graders, which were stagnant throughout much of the past decade, improved.

These numbers -- which illustrate sharp educational disparities by race and income and the closing of the doors of educational opportunity for millions of youngsters -- should be cause for alarm. But because the focus of education reform has shifted away from the elementary grades toward older students, few Americans know about this crisis in early literacy.

In recent years, policy-makers and major education foundations and advocacy groups have focused attention on the nation's high school dropouts -- with good reason. Roughly one in four youth who enter our nation's high schools as freshmen -- -and as many as half of black and Latino youth -- fails to graduate within four years. In a world where jobs that can support a family require not just a high school diploma but also some type of postsecondary education and training, these young people are largely shut out of shared economic and civic life. But the focus on dropout prevention and "college and career readiness" -- the Obama administration's watchword when it comes to education -- while laudable, sends a message that the most serious problems in education are clustered in the high school years. In fact, the attention to older students has sometimes come at the expense of younger ones: Since 2007, federal funding for early literacy has declined from more than $1 billion to $250 million, even as the overall federal education budget has grown. And earlier this year, the Obama administration abandoned a provision in its landmark student-loan reform legislation that would have created comprehensive state systems to improve the quality of child care and early education for children from birth through age 5.

The road to college and career readiness -- -or dropping out of high school -- begins long before students enter high school. In fact, the roots of the dropout crisis can be traced back to those fourth-grade NAEP scores -- and the high number of youngsters who are not learning to read well by the end of third grade.

Why focus on early literacy? Because whether children can read well by the end of third grade is a strong predictor of how they are likely to do in the future -- in school, at work, and as parents and citizens. The facts are sobering. Children who do not learn to read proficiently by the end of third grade are unlikely ever to read at grade level. These youngsters are at high risk for later school failure and behavioral problems, for dropping out of high school, and for a host of negative life outcomes once they reach adulthood. For example, poor reading skills in the early elementary grades are highly correlated with later delinquency. According to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 38 percent of all youth in juvenile detention read below the fourth-grade level.

That's because the end of third grade marks a critical transition point in children's learning: It is the time when children shift from learning how to read -- the key focus, along with social development, of the early elementary years -- to reading to learn. Once children reach fourth grade, the curriculum becomes more demanding, and children who lack foundational literacy skills find themselves struggling -- unable to access the curriculum and keep up with their classmates. Faced with persistent failure as a result of their poor literacy skills, these students frequently become frustrated, disengage from school, "act out" behaviorally, and without significant interventions and supports to address their literacy deficits, may drop out of school and face a lifetime of severely diminished economic prospects.

That's not to say we should give up on these youngsters. With determination and the right supports, older youth, and even adults, can become proficient readers at any age. But it is much more difficult to learn to read once the cycle of educational failure has already taken hold. And interventions that are successful in turning around the educational trajectories of older youth have lower success rates and are much more costly than getting it right in the early grades. In other words, if we want children to succeed in high school, college, and careers, our best and most cost-effective bet is to invest early in supporting their sound development in early childhood and acquisition of reading skills in elementary school.

But early literacy is not just a predictor of children's future success. It's also a reflection of how well -- or, considering the evidence, how poorly -- we as a society have cared for and kept up our responsibilities to our children to that point. Unlike any other single measure of children's well-being, fourth-grade literacy rates reflect the cumulative effect of children's experiences in the first eight years of their lives -- not just in school but from birth (even prenatally) on.

The path to literacy doesn't begin when children enter the schoolhouse door. It starts with high-quality prenatal care and maternal nutrition, to support healthy prenatal development, continuing with regular preventive health care, adequate nutrition, and developmental screenings in the infant and toddler years. It requires strong, stable, relationships with caregivers -- whether parents or other caregivers -- who stimulate infants' and toddlers' early language development by talking and reading to them, and, as children's language skills develop, engaging them in rich conversations that encourage them to express themselves. High-quality pre-K programs, taught by qualified teachers who understand how young children learn, and specifically designed to prepare children for school, can also help make sure children start school ready to learn to read. Effective elementary schools continue this process by providing high-quality instruction, delivered by skilled teachers and grounded in research about how young children learn to read.

Getting to literacy is like climbing a ladder. If any plank in the ladder is weak or missing, a child will be at risk for continued school failure. But if other rungs are strong, they can compensate for those shortcomings, enabling children to keep moving toward educational success. For example, research shows that disadvantaged children who grow up in homes with little verbal stimulation can succeed if they attend high-quality pre-K programs followed by effective elementary schools. But if every rung -- or too many of them -- is weak or missing, then the probability that children will read successfully by third grade is much lower. In other words, the fact that two-thirds of fourth-graders cannot read at grade level means our current policies and systems are failing them in multiple ways.

Focusing on literacy by the beginning of fourth grade as a critical national indicator of how we, as a nation, are fulfilling our responsibilities to our children offers a promising alternative to the current battles over education reform.

Currently, education-policy debates in the United States are divided between two warring camps: On one side are "school reformers," who argue that efforts to improve equity for low-income youngsters must focus on fixing failing schools. On the other are "whole child" reformers, who argue that focusing on schools is both too narrow and unfair to educators, because the stresses of poverty have such a crippling effect on young children's development that dramatic educational improvement is impossible without much broader policies to alleviate poverty.

Whole-child reformers tend to focus on services and inputs: Do children have access to health care? Are child-care classrooms safe and inviting? Is spending equitable between high- and low-poverty school districts? All of these things are important -- even critical. But, as school reformers note, they are not ends in themselves. Ultimately, what we want for children is not only a safe, healthy, and pleasant childhood -- although to be sure, we should want this for all children -- but a childhood that prepares them to live productive lives and fulfill their responsibilities as adults, parents, and citizens. And ensuring this requires us to measure learning outcomes -- -particularly those that are predictive of children's later life success. Fourth-grade literacy rates are such an outcome.

But because this outcome reflects the cumulative effects of children's experiences throughout the first eight years of life, it is not just a high-stakes snapshot of performance at one moment in time. By comparing fourth-grade literacy outcomes against the experiences and inputs that produced these results -- including indicators of health-care and preschool access, family economic well-being, mental-health and child-welfare services, nutrition, and comprehensive school quality -- we can identify gaps in how we are serving children and target investments and reforms to those areas with the greatest potential to improve children's long-term life outcomes.

As the statistics demonstrate, our public policies fall far short of ensuring all children get what they need to read well by fourth grade.

The good news is that, at each critical juncture in young children's development, smart policies and well-designed interventions can transform the trajectory of failure and put children on the path to reading success. Nurse home-visiting programs can ensure that low-income mothers get prenatal care, so their babies come into the world healthy, and help mothers support their children's development after they are born. Better access to quality health care can identify and arrest health problems -- or prevent them altogether -- before they become a threat to children's development. High-quality pre-kindergarten can compensate for disparities in children's home language environments. Effective elementary teachers can build children's literacy skills while also infusing them with a love of reading and learning. And effective early-literacy interventions constantly monitor children's progress and quickly intervene to support struggling students -- ensuring no one falls behind.

The bad news is that too many children who need these supports do not get them. For example, fewer than two-thirds of the poorest 4-year-olds -- those most likely to enter school far behind -- are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs. Children from "near poor" families, those whose families have low to moderate incomes but are not poor enough to qualify for subsidized pre-K, are even less likely to attend -- even though NAEP data show many of these youngsters also struggle to learn to read. Research shows that low-income children in our nation's schools have only a 10 percent chance of experiencing high-quality instruction throughout the critical early elementary years.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Across the country, state policy-makers, school districts, major foundations, community -- based organizations, and social entrepreneurs are implementing promising initiatives designed to arrest the cycle of school failure before it starts and ensure children read well by third grade. Now it's time to expand those initiatives and take them national. These reforms and interventions should be judged not just on their immediate impacts but also by their effect on fourth-grade reading achievement. Just as important, policy-makers should be held accountable for how the policies they support affect fourth-grade literacy outcomes.

The articles in this special report cast a spotlight on the early-literacy challenge, explaining why early literacy is so critical, exploring the reasons that too many of our youngest children are not learning to read, and offering provocative prescriptions for how policy-makers can change this:

Cornelia Grumman details the comprehensive supports that children need to get off to a good start in the first five years of life, how our public policies fall short in providing those supports, and some potential policy opportunities to better care for our youngest children.

Lisa Guernsey explains why efforts to improve early-literacy outcomes must not focus narrowly on teaching reading but must also leave room for play that develops children's critical social -- emotional and self-regulatory skills.

E.D. Hirsh and Robert Pondiscio explain how efforts to improve children's literacy skills must go beyond skill-based drill and kill and also ensure children acquire the rich content knowledge necessary to really understand what they read.

Gordon MacInnes shows that it's possible for high-poverty schools to do a much better job of teaching low-income youngsters to read, through the tale of how a package of reforms, including high-quality pre-K and intensive, data-driven literacy instruction in the early grades, dramatically improved reading performance for children in some of New Jersey's highest-poverty, most troubled districts.

Hedy Chang and Phyllis Jordan describe how the crisis of chronic absenteeism in the early grades is undermining children's learning -- and what can be done about it.

And Monica Potts describes the potential of recently passed health-reform legislation to improve early-literacy outcomes, by improving children's access to health-care services that support their development and enable them to learn to read.

Together, these articles map out a pathway for policy-makers to dramatically improve early literacy -- and our children's futures.