Achievement gaps tell disturbing tale of two states

Disparities in third grade reading levels should not be tolerated

MASSACHUSETTS HAS THE best schools in America and some of the highest performing districts. We would not stand for it if three-quarters of the third-graders in Newton or Weston or Wellesley could not read at grade level. Unfortunately, we allow this to be a fact of life in Holyoke, Chelsea, and Lawrence.

Alongside our best schools, we also have schools with some of the worst literacy rates in the country. It’s a part of the achievement gap we rarely discuss, even though it is one of the most important – and affordable – education issues we can address. And we should, because the failure to learn to read is the single greatest barrier to future educational, career, and life achievement. Simply put, if you can’t read, you can’t learn.

Given that students who read at grade level in the third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school and far more likely to go on to college, literacy is a smart investment in our children and schools. On the flip side, poor literacy has dramatic economic, social, and health costs. Kids who can’t read are more likely to develop chronic illness, and low literacy costs this nation at least $100 billion in direct health costs.

Despite having the best public education system in the country, literacy remains a stubborn problem in the Commonwealth: 43 percent of Massachusetts third-graders do not read at grade-level. Even more concerning is that more than 60 percent of black and Latino children are not proficiently reading by the end of third grade. The numbers are even bleaker for English language learners. The rate of students meeting the critical milestone of reading on grade level at the end of third grade has actually decreased statewide over the past five years.

If you are a mother or father you may know the joy of seeing your third grader curl up with Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Stuart Little, or a Roald Dahl book, and how your child tells you later all the amazing things he or she read about. Every child deserves that opportunity, no matter how poor her family or school district, or what language is spoken in her home. We can make that happen, and we should.

So how do make sure every Massachusetts child has a chance to read?

First, we should identify ways to find struggling readers early on in grades K through four, and develop an intervention plan quickly – within in 45 days to support these young readers. Currently, the Commonwealth lacks a comprehensive statewide plan when it comes to literacy intervention.

Second, we need to provide more resources for teachers and school districts – particularly in low-income areas. This includes more reading coaches and reading interventionists, along with summer literacy classes in high-need schools. Too many school districts don’t have access to strong literacy curriculum to most effectively help students. As a former high school teacher, in an urban district, I was baffled when students who were 15 or 16 years old could not read at grade level. By the time they reached me, they had already struggled through the vast majority of their school years. I wasn’t prepared to help them.

Finally, we must tackle the underlying challenges that are also having an impact on students – including things such as chronic absenteeism and not having access to basic health screenings like eye and hearing exams. Too often, children in poor districts have hearing or vision difficulties that are not detected until they have fallen far behind their peers. And low-income children in Massachusetts often lack access to high-quality preschool and are more likely to be absent in the early grades.

No child should feel the terrible frustration of falling further and further behind his or her peers because he or she needs more help learning to read. All kids deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in life.

Meet the Author

Ranjini Govender

Guest Contributor, Stand for Children Massachusetts
Stand for Children has been tagged, very unfairly, as somehow opposed to the work done by the excellent teachers of Massachusetts. We believe that teaching children to read, and hiring the people who are best trained to do that, is something we can all agree on. And we need to. Because right now too many of our children who look at a book don’t see the key to a better life, but a closed door.

Ranjini Govender is the executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Just a couple of months ago, Governor Baker cut funding for summer literacy classes in the state’s high-need Gateway Cities. So public school districts that identified summer literacy classes as a priority for their students this summer had the rug pulled out from under them. Too bad the author didn’t mention that little but essential fact.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Stand for Children’s website lists its six priorities: School Leadership, Teacher Excellence, Reading by 4th Grade, Pre-K, College & Career Readiness and Quality Schools for Everyone. Sounds great, so I took at look at one of them: Quality Schools for Everyone. What’s offered is a “White Paper from Stand for Children Leadership Center” dated 2012: “LEARNING FROM THE EVIDENCE ON SCHOOL CHOICE.” It’s all about charter schools (mentioned 191 times), vouchers/tax credits and school choice. “Public school choice” is mentioned 8 times. That gives a general idea of where the white paper is going. Anyhow, the paper refers to “two of the best-known and most-studied voucher programs” the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (started in 1990) and D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (started in 2004) which account “for much of the evidence we have on the impact of voucher policies.” Instead of relying on the white paper for details, I went elsewhere: The May 20, 2014 Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel had a headline “75% of state voucher program applicants already attend private school” and stated only “19% of eligible applicants are currently enrolled in public schools.” What’s the most recent info on the DC voucher programs? According to an April 29, 2016 Washington Post article, “Qualifying low-income families are given vouchers to use at private schools of their choosing. In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,442 students used vouchers to pay tuition at 47 private schools in the District, with 80 percent of those students using the vouchers for religious schools…A Washington Post investigation in 2012 found that quality controls for schools accepting the vouchers in D.C. were lacking. Hundreds of D.C. students were using their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.” If you go on the DC voucher program’s website then you’ll see a list of the participating schools some of which are Academia De La Recta Porta Intl. Christian Day School, Annunciation Catholic School, Dupont Park Adventist School, Jewish Primary Day School and National Presbyterian School. I’ll spare you charter school details since Massachusetts voters soundly rejected expanding their numbers. In any event, this author is selling snake oil.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The 4/28/2017 New York Times has an article “Vouchers Found to Lower Test Scores in Washington Schools” reporting on the examination of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program by the department’s Institute of Education Sciences finding that “students who attended a private school through the program performed worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use the vouchers. Among students who attended poor-performing public schools — the targets of this and other voucher programs — there was no significant effect on achievement….the results are sizable enough to conclude that students who were not selected for vouchers fared better academically. Math scores among students who used the vouchers were roughly seven percentage points lower than students who were not selected. The negative academic effect was even more pronounced for students who were not attending a low-performing school when they were awarded the vouchers — their scores were 14.6 percentage points lower in reading and 18.3 percentage points lower in math — and for students in elementary school…The report adds to mounting evidence that voucher programs across the country, which are often seen as an alternative to inferior public schools, are producing mixed academic results. Recent examinations of programs in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin have drawn similar conclusions.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Where does all that leave us? What’s the real disturbing tale on this state’s achievement gaps? We have a Governor cut funding for summer literacy classes in the state’s high-need Gateway Cities. We have a report released in 2015…that’s right…2015… the “Foundation Budget Review Commission Final Report” clearly and unequivocally that the State of Massachusetts needs to fix and fully fund the Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing aid to local public schools. Also, that the state shortchanges special education, low income students and English Language Learners. It’s not rocket science. The Governor and state legislature need to make fully funding public schools the #1 priority. That’s what needs to happen. Everything in the above commentary is just noise…just a distraction.