I am optimistic. While much of the news is focused on what divides us, I have the privilege of witnessing what is uniting North Carolinians. Parents, business leaders, philanthropists, educators, health care providers, policymakers and so many others are working together to tackle one of the state’s most significant challenges – third-grade reading.
Third grade has become a focal point because it predicts future academic and career success. In a state facing a growing skills gap, our lackluster third-grade results demand attention. By 2020, 68 percent of jobs in the state will require some post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Yet the majority of our students are not reading at grade level.
Last year, only 38 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders and 25 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families scored at or above reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although we have made progress narrowing reading proficiency disparities among students of color, the gap in the average scores between black and Hispanic students and their non-Hispanic white peers is more than 20 points.
So why am I optimistic? First, grade-level reading is achievable with policies and practices that reflect that reading is a cumulative process that develops from birth and is rooted in early brain development. Today, we have a much greater understanding of how brains develop than we did even a decade ago. Key concepts to inform policy and practice include:
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▪ The brain is one of the few organs not fully developed at birth.
▪ The connections – the wiring that forms the brain’s architecture – develop in early childhood. Every experience a baby has forms a neural connection in the brain. These connections form very rapidly in the early years at a rate of 700 synapses per second.
▪ Connections that get used more strengthen, and those used less fade.
▪ Just like building a house, what comes first builds a foundation for all that comes later.
In the words of Harvard University pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, “Brains are built, not born.” Decades of research have established what children need to build strong brains – health and development on track from birth, supportive and supported families and communities, and high-quality birth-to-eight care and education.
When we invest in creating opportunities for optimal child development, we also invest in our future.
More importantly, North Carolinians are taking action. In November, more than 85 government agency, legislative, foundation, nonprofit, business and community leaders came together to begin to create shared measures of success that support children’s optimal development beginning at birth. They are partnering with a team of the state’s leading researchers to identify and recommend a set of whole-child, birth-to-eight, research-based measures that put children on a pathway to grade-level reading. The effort is being co-convened by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation with NC Child, NC Partnership for Children and BEST NC.
Communities also are coming together. Read Charlotte, with support from local business, nonprofit, education, philanthropic and civic leaders, is leading a communitywide movement to double the number of third-graders reading on grade level from 40 percent in 2015 to 80 percent in 2025. Wake Up and Read is a nationally recognized collaborative of education, business, civic, philanthropic and nonprofit agencies focused on increasing childhood literacy in Wake County. Both are part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national push to ensure that more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career and active citizenship.
Policymakers also will need to prioritize investments in children’s early years. There’s reason for some optimism there, too. Recognizing the importance of third-grade reading outcomes, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Read to Achieve as part of the Excellent Public Schools Act, which has shown a much-needed spotlight on this complex challenge. And a bipartisan group of legislators has formed an Early Learning Caucus.
So, yes, I am optimistic. Together, we can ensure that each North Carolina child has the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential. And in so doing, we will ensure that North Carolina is future-ready – poised to lead the nation with an educated workforce and strong economy.
Tracy Zimmerman is executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.
Find more information at buildthefoundation.org/.