Every young life starts out with promise, and the adults who love a child yearn for that child to have a bright future.
But what if a simple barrier at an early age sets a child up for failure?
Difficulty in reading is such a barrier. Poor reading skill is a predictor of, among other things, involvement in the juvenile justice system.
“The literature shows a clear correlation between a grade-level reading problem and, later on, incarceration in the juvenile justice system,” said Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national collaboration of foundations, nonprofits, business leaders, and communities focusing on school success for children in low-income families.
Reading is so foundational, the Campaign has a nationwide effort to bring all kids to reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
Cities like Orlando have made literacy a cornerstone of their after-school and summer programs for kids. And a statewide campaign in Arkansas brings together school districts, teachers and volunteers to provide tutoring, mentoring and innovative summer literacy activities.
“There’s a very strong association between behavior problems and academic achievement,” said Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
Stick and Sara Miles collaborated on research published in 2006 that followed children from first through fifth grade.
“We found that in first grade, achievement in literacy and reading predicted later aggression,” said Miles, who is now research director for the nonprofit Challenge Success.
“Our theory was that kids who are struggling as readers …” develop frustration and a negative relation to school. “It sort of snowballs,” Miles said.
They get more off-track as they get older.
“It can lead to low self-esteem and an antagonistic relation with school,” she said.
Chuang Wang, professor of educational research at the University of North Carolina, also has researched the link between reading and behavior.
“We found that students who have behavior problems also have problems in reading,” he said of a study involving second graders published in 2011.
“If you improve reading, then you might have less problem with delinquency,” Wang said. “They are highly connected.”
He cautioned that poor reading does not cause delinquency, however. Research shows correlation but not causation.
From a child’s point of view
Smith, with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, describes it this way: “Imagine being a fourth-grader who realizes they can’t read and apprehends that they are in serious trouble and no cavalry of adults is mobilizing to save them.”
“What’s the incentive to resist oppositional behavior … to be respectful of adults and trust adult authority?” he said.
“You begin to understand how a young person … could get on a path that leads them to the juvenile justice system,” Smith said.
Three vital areas need to be addressed according to Smith: the school readiness of young children, the chronic absenteeism that causes some children to fall behind and the loss of knowledge during the summer. Kids often start out behind, fall behind further due to chronic absenteeism and lose skills in the summer, he said.
After-school programs can also address the problem in several ways, Smith said. They can:
- enrich the school curriculum
- add opportunities for kids with moderate or good reading skills to fall in love with books, and
- build the skills of marginal and struggling students.
Smith said that after-school programs need to be more intentional in reaching and engaging the students who need extra time and assistance, not just those who happen to show up after school. Programs should make an effort to find the students who could benefit the most, he said.
Efforts in Arkansas
Since 2011, the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has been supported by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The campaign has brought together a variety of stakeholders including schools, early-childhood programs and the state department of education, said Angela Duran, campaign director.
A large tutoring effort known as AR Kids Read spans four school districts in Pulaski County, where about 500 volunteers tutor 1,200 children.
In Springdale, Arkansas, the Parents Taking Leadership Action focuses on getting parents involved in their children’s education. The district includes many Latino parents as well as a large group of immigrants from the Marshall Islands who were encouraged to get to know teachers and take English classes at the school, Duran said.
The campaign also focuses on reducing chronic absenteeism by helping schools use data to pinpoint frequently absent students early and reach out to families in positive rather than negative ways to encourage attendance, she said. For example, a school may inquire about the family’s needs and connect the family to resources instead of focusing solely on truancy.
In addition, five summer programs with a literacy component are funded by the Arkansas Community Foundation.
A large reading program in more that 16 U.S. cities, Read for Success, is sponsored by the nonprofit Reading is Fundamental. It targets the 80 percent of children from economically disadvantaged communities who lose reading skills over the summer. Through the program, schools and community-based groups receive a collection of books, as well as training in ways to use the materials.. Children take home books during the summer and have access to related activities online.
Social, emotional skills required
Teaching reading skills is very important, said Spivek of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. But supporting the development of social and emotional skills and self-regulation is critical too, she said, noting that research shows poor self-regulation predicts both poor reading ability and poor behavior.
“We need to teach kids better early on,” she said.
Teacher training is the crucial ingredient, Spivek added. “What matters most is teaching. It’s more important than curriculum.”
“Focus on reading and self-regulation and social and emotional skills and math,” she advised.
Miles said that high-quality after-school settings with trained staff are extremely valuable.
“It’s a great time to do some of that social and emotional teaching and learning,” she said, especially for low-income kids who don’t necessarily have the opportunity for a lot of out-of-school activities.
Ten years ago, the city of Orlando launched the Parramore Kidz Zone in its lowest-income neighborhood. The program grew to offer six free after-school tutoring sites and a comprehensive pre-kindergarten program, as well as youth development programming that helps kids with employment, college access, educational and cultural experiences, and leadership development.
The city developed a summer learning program for elementary-school children at eight recreation centers. Twelve teachers provided a summer reading academy at each location using project-based activities.
Children who struggle with reading are going to be frustrated, Spivek said. If you only focus on academics with them you are “missing the big picture,” she said.
Focus on the whole child, she said.
“The middle grades are the make-or-break point of our K-12 public school system,” SREB President Dave Spence said in a press release. “If states are serious about raising graduation rates and preparing more students for postsecondary study, work has to begin now on the middle grades.”
The SREB is a non-profit, non-partisan organization established by regional governors and legislators to improve the public education system. The organization covers 16 states in the South and Southeast, working directly with state leaders, schools and educators to improve learning and student achievement from Pre-K to higher education.
The 16 states covered by the SREB have made “good” progress in early grades achievement in recent years according to the report, but a number still lag behind national standards.
Meanwhile, nation-wide, the likelihood an American teen will graduate from high school increased from 2006 to 2009 according to the 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on children’s well-being throughout the nation.
While some 1.1 million teens between the age of 16 and 19 didn’t graduate high school or failed to enroll in 2009, the number represents about a 50 percent decline in the dropout rate since 2000, according to Kids Count.
Today, students entering high school in the South have about a 50/50 shot of making it into some sort of postsecondary education by age 19, according to the SREB report, yet research has shown the job sectors expected to grow fastest in the coming years will require some sort of college degree or technical certificate.
Out of the SREB-district students that enrolled in a four-year college directly after high school in 2003, little more than half (53 percent) graduated within six years. Those enrolled in two-year colleges within the same period fared worse, with less than 20 percent graduating within three years.
According to 2009 figures, adults with a high school diploma earned an average of $8,500 a year more than adults without a diploma. Those with a bachelor’s degree average $26,000 more per year and tended to make healthier life choices, with a lower likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, according to the SREB report.
Fourteen other nations already exceed the United States in the percentage of 25- to 34- year-olds who have completed at least two years of education beyond high school, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
It’s a worrying trend, even for President Obama. At a July 2011 roundtable, the president called education “the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs, but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.”
Throughout his presidency, Obama has pushed for a greater focus in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The SREB report supports these initiatives, calling for an increased focus on both STEM studies and student literacy.
“Focusing on the middle grades curriculum to emphasize STEM in every subject means that more students will master these skills than in the past,” the SREB report notes. “They provide a foundation for continuing study in high school and for nearly all careers.”
To improve the states' graduation rates and help prepare students for high school, postsecondary study and even a future career, the 28-page report “A New Mission for Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World” offers a detailed, six-point roadmap to improving educational outcomes in middle school and beyond:
- Communicate and clarify the mission in every middle grades school.
- Focus the middle grades curriculum on literacy and STEM disciplines.
- Identify middle grades students likely to drop out of school and intervene with increased learning time and accelerated instructions.
- Require middle grades students to complete individual academic and career plans.
- Refocus professional development for middle grades teachers, counselors and school leaders.
- Hold districts and schools accountable for meeting the middle grades mission
According to the report, the middle grades are pivotal years for shaping a student’s future.
A phenomenon known as the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” -- a chronic trend throughout the Southeast in which more students are enrolled in ninth grade than were enrolled in eighth grade due to being held back -- directly contributes to graduation rates, according to the report. Students cited not being on track to graduate with their peers as a critical factor in their decision to drop out of school.
Identifying those students at risk of dropping out or significantly lagging in the academic sector before they reach high school can reduce the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” and ultimately the dropout rate, the report suggests.
“What we do to engage today’s sixth-grade students will have serious consequences for the strength of the economy in SREB states and the nation for years to come,” said North Carolina’s Gov. Beverly Perdue, former chair of the SREB Middle Grades Commission that produced the report.
Maryland has also started to develop a STEM resource clearinghouse with the hopes of bolstering early academic achievement in the state and facilitating an exchange of expertise and resources. Three county school districts are already online, but once completed the clearinghouse will act as a gateway for teachers to share knowledge, resources, and exchange ideas with STEM professionals and other academics.
“Part of the challenge is to move Maryland students to become world-class in STEM,” said June Streckfus, Executive Director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and Co-Chair of the 2008 [Maryland] Stem Task Force . “In order to do that we took a two-prong approach,” focusing on motivating students to enroll in harder classes while fulfilling the needs of the teaching staff in areas like professional development and resource availability.
Findings from Montgomery County, Md., one of the few school districts in the nation to start putting the SREB’s vision for effective middle school practices to work, supports the work being done to improve education in the state. Data, based on student achievement in the district suggests students who pass Algebra I in the eighth grade are twice as likely to continue on to college.
In North Carolina, state legislators have pledged to create 10 anchor schools with a focus on STEM curriculum. Three high schools focused on STEM curriculum have already been established, with more expected in the coming years. Students choose whether to attend a STEM-centric high school while still taking middle school classes.
The anchor schools aim to lead the state’s efforts to develop exemplary STEM curricula while serving as centers for professional development and lead the state in innovative teaching and learning practices, according to the SREB report.
The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy is offering a grant to support reading skills. Some of the requirements for this grant include, literacy instructions for kids pre-K to the third grade, intergenerational literacy and literacy for adults. No grant request should exceed $65,000. The deadline for this grant is September 9, 2011.
Build-A-Bear Workshop Bear Hugs Foundation builds a strong foundation for literacy and education. This grant provides support through summer reading programs, early childhood education programs and literacy programs for children with special needs. This grant is made possible through the sale of a special Build A Bear stuffed animal named Turner the Owl. With each purchase of Turner the Owl, 50 cents is donated to First Book, a non-profit that helps kids in need get new books. It also helps support other literacy programs throughout North America. Grants awarded through the Build-A-Bear Workshop Bear Hugs Foundation range from $1,000 to $10,000. The average grant amount awarded is $1,500. This grant is accepting applications from March until October and reviews them on a rolling basis.
Longer classes in reading and writing could help students get promoted to the next grade according to a 2010 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. The Blueprint for Student Success was a literacy program that ran for five years to determine what works in reading reform in the San Diego Unified School District. According to the report, the program helped mostly elementary and middle school children. However, the program did not show any results either positive or negative in regards to completing high school college prep work. The study recommends that the Department of Education ease its Title I requirements so school districts could use the money for reforms that target both low-incoming students as well as low performing students regardless of school or neighborhood.