BANGOR, Maine — Sixty-five percent of Maine fourth-graders scored below grade proficiency in reading in 2009. That is better than the national average of 68 percent, and it’s the good news reported by the Maine Children’s Alliance on Tuesday.
The bad news is that this early failure to develop reading skills leads to many problems later in life, including poor school performance and high dropout rates, limited career options — including in the military— low lifetime wages, and low overall quality of life.
“From kindergarten to grade three, a child learns to read and from grade four on a child reads to learn,” said Dean Crocker of the Maine Children’s Alliance, quoting a report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The report measures the performance of fourth-graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
“Although [the NAEP test] does not equate exactly with grade-level proficiency, which varies by state, it is closest to the level of global realities, and that is the level to which we ought to aspire,” the report states.
Crocker, accompanied by state lawmakers and a representative of the business community’s Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, was at the Penquis Agency in Bangor on Tuesday to highlight the new national report, “Early Warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters.”
The report calls for a national prioritization of grade-level reading proficiency by the end of third grade, supported by a coalition of public and private agencies, community groups, the business and faith communities, and the military sector.
Crocker said it is clear that public schools, and the public funding that supports them, are failing to meet the needs of the nation’s children. The solution, he said, is for teachers and schools to establish high standards and proven methods for developing literacy in young children, and for the larger community to invest money, creativity and effort in meeting those standards.
Even the nation’s security is affected by low literacy rates, Crocker said, since the armed forces will for the most part not accept high school dropouts, and troops without successful academic records seldom rise to leadership ranks.
In Maine, efforts within the private sector are already under way to promote literacy in young children, including the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a recently formed statewide group of business and education leaders.
Yellow Light Breen, who chairs the coalition and is a senior vice president at Bangor Savings Bank, said the business community is motivated to help schools meet literacy goals in order to develop a work force of future business leaders. He said successful businesses understand the importance of long-term investment, the need to be both efficient and effective, and how to measure success in concrete terms.
The coalition earlier this week announced an initiative aimed at “remodeling” Maine’s education system to promote early childhood education, develop the teaching work force, engage communities and collect reliable data about school performance.
Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, and Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport also spoke at the media event. Rosen said inspired teachers and a love of reading can lift children out of poverty.
“Poverty has an impact, but it doesn’t have to hold people back if they have access to resources,” he said.
Sutherland, co-chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said Maine schools are doing the best they can under difficult financial restraints but don’t have the resources they need to raise literacy rates significantly. Collaborating with the private sector, she said, is one solution to improving school performance.
According to the new report, Maine’s fourth-grade reading performance places it 17th highest among states. The best-performing state in the report is Massachusetts, with 53 percent of fourth-graders reading below grade level, and the lowest performing state is Louisiana at 82 percent. Washington, D.C. brings up the rear at 83 percent.
The report also surveys below-grade reading proficiency related to race, urban versus rural location, family income and school funding. It also measures factors such as the number of low birth-weight babies, the number of children not enrolled in preschool, preschool-aged children not read to by family members, high school dropout rates and other factors related to reading readiness and overall school performance. Much of the data is drawn from the Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report, release at both the national and state levels.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is the largest philanthropy in the nation devoted to the health and well-being of American children.