May 21, 2018
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Poverty of Reading Skills

A new report on reading reaffirms that our education system is falling far short of expectations. The solutions — getting parents more involved in their children’s education, better preschool programs and more teacher and school accountability — are not new. What has been lacking is a commitment to improve.

A report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that two-thirds of the nation’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. The situation is even worse for children from low-income families.

Reading is a crucial skill that children need in order to progress educationally and to be successful in the work world. McKinsey & Company estimates that the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher in 2008 if U.S. students had met the educational achievement level of higher performing nations between 1983 and 1998.

“Through third grade, children are learning to read. After third grade, they are reading to learn,” said Dean Crocker, president of the Maine Children’s Alliance. “If their reading skills are not adequate, it compromises their ability to learn in any other subject.”

Worse, he said, a lack of academic success increases the risk that children will drop out of school and be more vulnerable to substance abuse and criminal activity. They will also lack the skills needed for good jobs, which can lead to another generation of poverty, children growing up with poor reading skills and on and on.

To break the cycle, the foundation proposes four steps. The first is a better system of early childhood care and education, something that lawmakers in Augusta have talked about for more than a decade with little change.

Second is getting parents more involved in their children’s education and lives, another perennial solution.

Third, is reducing school absences and “summer learning loss.”

The suggestion that has the most chance of working — because it aligns with the Obama administration’s push for more school accountability — is to invest in results-driven efforts to transform schools. This is the aim of the federal Race To the Top Program, which has set aside more than $3 billion for states that commit to remaking their school systems with an eye toward teacher and principal accountability.

Maine, which scrambled to put measures in place to comply with Race To the Top requirements, must apply to participate in the program by June 2.

Beyond this, the solutions that are cited are more about political will than money (although that will be the excuse for not pursuing them). It doesn’t cost a lot to get parents to read to their children, for example. However, those parents can’t be working two jobs and coming home exhausted and worried about whether they can pay the rent.

Freeing families from the crushing burdens of poverty will lead to improved reading skills and a whole host of other positive changes. To do this, policymakers and the public must be convinced that poverty is a pressing problem and then they must support sustained efforts to reduce the number of families at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

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