Last week John Kasich submitted his latest education reform bill to the legislature via Senator Peggy Lehner.  We’ve posted about that introduction of ideas now known as Senate Bill 316, and I personally wrote about a proposal referred to as the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.  The proposal is an ill-conceived method of enforcing big-government ideas onto local school board decisions under the guise of providing the “best” solution for students.  But when the administration revealed the research that is the driving force behind this recycled plan, they revealed their own flaws in reading and comprehension.

If the Kasich administration had read the full report they cite or even taken the time to read the updated study by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, they would have learned that the findings explain that struggles with reading and graduation rates are merely symptoms of the real problem — poverty.

To support its plan, the administration points to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that found that students behind in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. (Columbus Dispatch, 3/28/12)

That statement is technically true, except for the fact that the report does not provide support for the administration’s plan.  So while the Kasich administration wants us to believe that schools & teachers are failing, providing the primary reason for the gap in reading proficiency in the early elementary grades, the AEC Foundation’s findings recommend that the primary changes need to occur elsewhere — at a societal level first, and then at the school level.  Governor Kasich has leveled his changes squarely on the shoulders of our schools, stating in his own press release that “Ohio parents deserve to know their child is prepared for learning.”  Kasich is also on record as saying that if students get to third grade and fail the state exam, they won’t be moved on to the fourth grade because “that is doing the children a disservice, that is doing the parents a disservice.”

So what do the AEC Foundation studies actually say?

  • Reading proficiently by the end of third grade can be a make-or-break benchmark in a child’s educational development
  • Low achievement in reading has important long-term consequences
  • Demographic realities make the reading gap too large a problem to ignore (7.9 million low-income children from birth through age eight)

Yes, reading proficiency is crucial for our children.  The basic skill of reading and reading comprehension are foundations for learning and a child who struggles in this area will fall behind over the years.

So what does leads to this gap?  Here’s what that same AEC study – cited by the Kasich administration – reports under the heading Several Major Factors Undermine Grade-Level Reading Proficiency:

  • Children must be ready to succeed when they get to school (cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically) before they can learn there
  • The gap begins at birth for children born low birthweight, prematurely, with congenital health problems, or affected by prenatal exposure to toxic substances (factors more likely to occur to children born to low-income mothers)
  • The readiness gap continues between birth and kindergarten due to differences in children’s resources and opportunities for physical, linguistic, cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral development
  • Low-income children have a higher incidence of health problems that interfere with learning
  • Too many children from low-income families lack early interactions that foster linguistic development
  • Low-income children are less likely that middle-income children to participate in high-quality early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs that prepare children to succeed in school
  • The readiness gap becomes an achievement gap when children enter school, and this gap persists over the students’ school experience
  • Too many children miss too much instructional time due to chronic absence (more prevalent in for low-income children)
  • Too many children are distracted by childhood hunger and food insecurity, housing insecurity, and family mobility
  • Too many children find their prospects for success in school damaged and disrupted by other family-related stressors

The AEC Foundation’s follow-up study Double Jeopardy that provides more of the connection to graduation is actually subtitled How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation.

Not just third grade reading, but also poverty.  And does it ever.  If we are able to eliminate the reading gap at third grade, the effects of poverty would still hold many children back.  If the Kasich administration wanted to truly impact a greater number of children and dramatically increase graduation rates, they would be focusing on eliminating poverty (according to the study they are citing).

Overall, 22 percent of children with some family poverty experience do not graduate from high school, a figure about three times greater than the 6 percent rate for children with no family poverty experience (Figure 3). This rises to 32 percent for children spending more than half of the survey period in poverty.

Children who spend a year or more in poverty account for 38 percent of all children, but they account for seven-tenths (70 percent) of all children who do not graduate from high school. Poverty matters (Figure 4).
Did I mention that this is all from the report that supposedly spawned John Kasich’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee that mandates increased (and unfunded) instructional interventions by schools and the retention of children who are not proficient as the sole solution?

Kasich’s proposal ignores the findings from a third study funded by the AEC Foundation that looked at improving high school graduation rates in the state of Rhode Island.  They identified a variety of predictive factors that increased the likelihood of dropping out of high school, including:

Finally, the two AEC Foundation reports focusing on third grade reading offer their expert recommendations for helping to correct this identified problem.  Guess what was not at the top (or bottom) of their list.

  1. Develop a coherent system of early care and education that aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through third grade so children are ready to take on the learning tasks associated with fourth grade and beyond.
    (The first paragraph under this recommendation begins: We applaud the Obama Administration’s decision to create a Presidential Early Learning Council and to extend its scope from birth through age 8.)
  2. Encourage and enable parents, families, and caregivers to play their indispensable roles as co-producers of good outcomes for their children.
  3. Prioritize, support, and invest in results-driven initiatives to transform low-performing schools into high-quality teaching and learning environments in which all children, including those from low-income families and high-poverty neighborhoods, are present, engaged, and educated to high standards.
  4. Find, develop, and deploy practical and scalable solutions to two fo the most significant contributors to the under-achievement of children from low-income families–chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.

The more recent report, Double Jeopardy, provides more summarized guidance for us:

Schools and parents cannot, by themselves, bring about these changes. Federal, state, and local governments will be essential in the development and funding of efforts to expand PreK, to develop integrated PreK-3rd initiatives, to reduce chronic absenteeism, to expand summer learning opportunities, to assure that schools provide high-quality instruction, and to provide access to health insurance and to effective opportunities for parents to increase their educational levels and human capital. The links between parent education, family income and children’s educational success further suggest the potential value in pursuing two-generation strategies, which seek to improve results for children by focusing simultaneously on school policies and programs, and on strengthening families through increased parental education and improved employment opportunities that reduce family poverty, as well as increased health insurance coverage for all family members.

So let’s be clear about this — the reports by the AEC indeed support the premise that reading proficiency in elementary is a big deal and that there is a correlation between reading proficiency and future success in school.  That fact is not a surprise to anyone I know.

But while Kasich, Inc. wants to blame the schools and punish the children, the researchers a compelling us to look at policies that would help us to eliminate the need to be constantly providing intervention services (i.e., educational band-aids) and to correct the true root of our problem — poverty.

These studies are crystal clear in their recommendation that poverty and all of its associated problems are the key factor impacting student success in school.  If the Kasich administration would quit picking fights with the public schools that are already battling the damaging effects of financial hardship that play out in our schools and communities every single minute of every single day and partner with these educators in an attempt to implement authentic programs to eradicate poverty among the citizens of Ohio, then our concerns about struggling readers and high school dropouts would dramatically decrease.

Governor Kasich, the reading guarantee is a superficial fix to a much larger problem.  I challenge you to focus on the real issue at hand and implement a Third Grade Poverty Guarantee to deliver Ohio’s children and their families out of poverty and guarantee those children a future filled with success.