On Jan. 9, N.C. State University researchers issued a stark and troubling report, citing no progress in students’ reading gains as a result of the much-heralded Read To Achieve program.
The harsh truth is that, as The News & Observer reported, North Carolina is “moving backwards” on reading; the Read to Achieve legislation enacted in 2012 is failing our students. In spite of an investment of more than $150 million, the program not only hasn’t produced gains in the reading skills of our youngest students, it has left these aspiring learners further behind. The NCSU study reports that just 55.9 percent of students reads proficiently in third grade – barely more than one in two students -- down from 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year.
Yet what appears to be the policy response to the distressing news of the program’s disappointing outcomes? Instead of recommending a legislative overhaul to the failing plan, the State Department of Public Education is choosing to double down on its ineffective strategies, increasing access to technology in classrooms and continuing summer camps for struggling students. These interventions didn’t work the first time, and they won’t this time either.
Staying the course in light of the findings is a tremendous waste of precious public dollars – and it is unconscionable: we owe our kids basic literacy. It is time for a fresh approach, one that starts earlier in a child’s life.
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Read to Achieve has failed because its investment and focus are far off the mark. The keys to literacy and academic success aren’t testing, technology, and remediation once children reach elementary school. The money and the lens need to refocus on the starting gate – the very moment children are born -- and to embrace parents, who are their children’s first teachers and most ardent advocates. Every parent deserves the resources and support to unleash the innate brilliance held in every child.
The research is clear: fully 80 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the age of three. The brain of an infant fires an astounding million neurons every second. The developmental window that begins at birth and extends through the first three years – even before the supports and enrichments that come with pre-kindergarten – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ignite a child’s brain power.
What are we to do with this knowledge of early brain science? We need to provide literacy support to parents in every way possible, from the moment they bring their newborns home from the hospital. We need to shower them with an abundance of books and with literacy-focused home visiting and coaching. We need to ignite the spark of early language and vocabulary development, encouraging parents to read with their children from their earliest days, to speak to them and sing to them and fill their worlds with language all the time. These are the vital building blocks of kindergarten readiness and school success – and we have a moral imperative to invest in these strategies so that the science of brain development comes to life in every family’s living room, at every kitchen table, and at every child’s bedside.
We applaud recent efforts in North Carolina that are shining a light on the earliest years of a child’s life. Kudos to Governor Cooper for his Executive Order to develop a statewide early childhood plan. Kudos to The North Carolina Early Education Coalition for spearheading the adoption of Think Babies NC. Kudos to the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation for conducting a survey that demonstrated that voters across the state support doubling the funding for early childhood.
Let’s hope that these myriad efforts hold a steadfast focus on the true lynchpin of every child’s success: parents. Nobody wants what is best for children more than parents themselves. Let’s take some of the tens of millions of dollars that are targeting third grade reading proficiency and put them to work to provide all parents with the resources, supports, and tools they need from the very first days of their children’s lives. We’ll wager that if we do so we just might find ourselves reading a report of huge gains in reading achievement and much-needed progress for every child in North Carolina.
Ginger Young is the Founder and Executive Director of Book Harvest, a North Carolina nonprofit organization based in Durham.