Poor reading skills stymie children and the N.C. economy

A stretch of student artwork lines the second floor hallway wall at River Bend Elementary Thursday. The Raleigh school with 653 students pre-K through 5th grade first opened for the 2007-2008 school year.
A stretch of student artwork lines the second floor hallway wall at River Bend Elementary Thursday. The Raleigh school with 653 students pre-K through 5th grade first opened for the 2007-2008 school year. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Thousands of North Carolina children will not be ready to seize the career opportunities of the future. There is a very real and growing gap between what kind of employees North Carolina businesses need for future jobs, and the education levels of the young people who will fill them.

Companies across North Carolina – including SAS – are experiencing a “skills gap” that is expected to continue as more and more jobs require higher levels of education and training. In fact, experts predict that, by 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require post-secondary education or training. The problem? Only 42 percent of North Carolinians have the education required for these jobs.

North Carolina is not alone. Economists predict a nationwide shortfall of five million workers to fill jobs requiring postsecondary education and training by 2020.

Third-grade reading proficiency is key to reversing this “skills gap” and ensuring our students graduate from high school ready to succeed in a global economy.

The logic behind this is clear. Through third grade, children are learning to read. After that, they read to learn. That is why reading proficiently by the end of third grade is recognized as one of the best predictors of future success.

The results are equally as clear. Students who are strong readers by third grade are much more likely to graduate from high school and seek postsecondary education and training. Reading also bolsters the development of “soft skills,” especially communication and critical thinking, essential for business.

Conversely, students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade rarely catch up. These students are four times more likely to not graduate from high school.

The numbers in North Carolina are concerning. The latest data available (2015) shows that 62 percent of our fourth graders were not proficient in reading. Over the last year, I have led a task force of CEOs from the Business Roundtable (BRT), exploring the importance of third-grade reading proficiency to U.S. businesses and our nation’s economy. Our work culminated in a new report, “Why Reading Matters and What to Do about It.” That report was released nationally Thursday, Feb. 9. North Carolina CEOs joining me to strengthen literacy across our state include: Jim Whitehurst – Red Hat, Venessa Harrison – AT&T of North Carolina, Dale Jenkins – Medical Mutual, Brian Moynihan – Bank of America, Tom Nelson – National Gypsum, and Mike Lamach – Ingersoll Rand.

We support the BRT’s six-step state policy agenda to develop student reading proficiency necessary for today’s and tomorrow’s economy. These policies focus on ensuring children have strong early literacy skills as they enter kindergarten, and then systematically build on that foundation to help all students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

North Carolina enacted “Read to Achieve” in 2012, with the goal of all North Carolina students being reading proficient at the end of third grade. While we fully support the goals of Read to Achieve, more needs to be done to reach them. That is why we are urging the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper to focus on three of the BRT’s recommendations:

First, we must implement a comprehensive, coordinated system that ensures accountability and alignment of birth through age 8 programs that put children on the path to reading proficiency.

Second, we must develop data systems that follow children’s progress and allow for early interventions to keep children progressing toward literacy in third grade.

Third, we must expand access to NC Pre-K – our high-quality pre-K program for four-year-olds – to give more of our children an opportunity to achieve reading proficiency by third grade.

No state has implemented all of the recommendations proposed by the Business Roundtable. We want North Carolina to be the first. I and my fellow North Carolina CEOs are committed to improving early childhood literacy. It is essential to the children of North Carolina, to North Carolina businesses, and to our state’s economy.

Jim Goodnight is the co-founder and CEO of SAS Institute, a data analytics company based in Cary.