An urgency to the early years

Sunday, March 6, 2011; 7:52 PM

MANY PEOPLE, famous and not so famous, took time out last Wednesday to read to schoolchildren as part of the annual Read Across America Day, which encourages young people to read. They had their work cut out for them, because the sad reality is that two-thirds of students in this country can't meet the critical literacy milestone of reading on grade level by third grade. For disadvantaged children, the numbers are even grimmer, with some four-fifths not proficient. It's an urgent problem that demands more than a day's attention, and that's why a new campaign to help children learn to read earlier is so important.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort among 70 foundations and donors (from large national foundations to small community groups) to get all children reading at grade level by the time they're 9 years old. Students who enter fourth grade unable to read proficiently are at increased risk of never being able to graduate from high school, much less think about college. The campaign, spearheaded by Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is not the first to focus on this crucial marker in a child's schooling; President George W. Bush's Reading First program aimed to get children to read sooner, and the Baltimore Sun and the L.A. Times sponsored "Reading by 9" campaigns.

What distinguishes this new effort is the recognition that improvements in school instruction must be matched by involvement from parents and the larger community. Yes, there is a need to raise standards and do something about low-performing schools where non-readers are allowed to languish and get promoted. But it's also important to pay attention to prenatal health, for parents to be taught the importance of verbal interaction with children who have yet to start talking and to strengthen preschool programs by lining up activities with what's being taught in the early elementary grades. Special attention must be paid to students chronically absent in the early grades, and more imaginative efforts are needed to combat the summer learning loss experienced by many low-income and minority children.

It's not likely there will be vast new financial resources for this effort. So there's a need, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at last week's kickoff, for more strategic thinking and coordinated spending. He promised that early learning will be key in his push for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. "Our high schools are in the catch-up business, our middle schools. If we ultimately want to get out of the remediation business," he said, "we have to get our babies off to a good start."

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