Thursday, May 26, 2011

To lower dropout rates, teach young children to love reading

Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best ones.

A study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests that we should start addressing the dropout problem well before children become teenagers. It turns out that reading to small children, and encouraging them to read, may be the most effective strategy to reduce the high school dropout rate.

It's a challenge, sure. South Carolina's lawmakers have never been keen on long-term strategies, as the business community measures its profits and losses in quarterly reports. But if we're serious about fixing the dropout rate, maybe we ought to pay attention to this one.

Children who aren't reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely not to graduate high school than their peers with higher reading skills, according to a report issued Friday.

Students in low-income families fared even worse in a longitudinal study of 3,975 children born between 1979 and 1989, according to Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, a report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and presented during the Education Writers Association's national conference in New Orleans.

"We will never close the achievement gap, we will never solve our dropout crisis, we will never break the cycle of poverty that afflicts so many children if we don't make sure that all our students learn to read," said Ralph Smith, the foundation's executive vice president, in a statement. "This research confirms the compelling need to address the underlying issues that keep children from reading."

The Casey study finds that one-sixth of third-graders who don't read on a third-grade level don't graduate on time. Of those third-graders measured to have the lowest skills level -- "below basic" -- almost one-fourth drop out, compared with nine percent of children who demonstrate the "basic" skills level and four percent of those who demonstrate "proficient" reading skills.

A second large theme found by the Casey study is the role of childhood poverty.

Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate high school, compared with 6 percent who have never been poor. And 32 percent of students spending more than half their childhood in poverty do not finish high school on time.

For children who were in poverty at least one year and who were not reading proficiently in third grade, 26 percent didn't graduate on time -- more than six times the rate for all proficient readers.

It would seem to be self-evident, wouldn't it, that children lacking fundamental resources in the home -- clean water, good nutrition, a book here or there -- would have a harder time gaining the basic skills necessary to succeed in school. Yet despite study after study demonstrating these conclusions in clear, incontrovertible terms, South Carolina continues to leave large populations of its children in poverty. The 2010 census suggests that something approaching half of the state's children suffer there now.

The Casey study's full conclusions are outlined here, and the writers at the Augusta Chronicle suggest that "if those trends hold beyond the study group, Georgia and South Carolina have tougher challenges than many other states."

In Georgia, only 29 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests in 2009. In South Carolina, the rate was 28 percent; and nationally, it was 33.

Facing an even more difficult challenge, based on 2010 poverty levels, are Burke County (83.6 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty), Richmond County (74 percent), McDuffie County (71.6 percent), Edgefield County (58.3 percent) and Aiken County (56.7 percent).

So, what lessons should we take from the Casey study?

"These findings suggest we need to work in three arenas: improving the schools where these children are learning to read, helping the families weighed down by poverty and encouraging better federal, state and local policy to improve the lot of both schools and families," said Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor who conducted the study.

Sounds costly, which means the legislature will likely leave it to a future legislature to handle, when the economy improves. For now, we've got budget cuts to enact -- and drivers licenses to take away from teenagers missing school.

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