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October 29, 2015

Why we can’t give up on early reading

This article was first published on The Hill.

By: Michael Lombardo and Robert Slavin

Much of our national conversation on education policy has focused on preparing kids in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. President Obama is talking about it, as are many of his aspiring successors. STEM gets a lot of attention for a very good reason: the STEM world offers kids great careers and we need smart young minds to fill the occupations associated with these degrees. But while we are making great investments in STEM, an equally important learning skill isn’t being discussed—reading.

Barely a third—just 34 percent—of all fourth graders in American public schools currently read at their grade level. In low-income communities, that number drops to one in five. Middle school students in 19 other countries score better than ours in reading, including Estonia and Vietnam. Our national test scores in reading are stagnant while other countries are passing us by—we’ve dropped 10 places in the international rankings since 2003.

Yet while the president’s budget request to Congress features a more than $3 billion for STEM initiatives, only $180 million is sought for reading.  That works out to about $20 for each of the 9 million elementary school kids who currently read below their grade level, a woefully insufficient figure.  It is encouraging that the president has highlighted the importance of early reading through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, but serious funding for the issue has not so far materialized.

Congress has also placed other budgetary priorities ahead of early reading. Neither the House nor Senate budgets contain any funding for literacy, rejecting even the very small asks of the Obama administration. If this stands, for the first time in decades, the federal government would have no dedicated funding stream focused on improving reading achievement for kids.

Of course, we shouldn’t have to choose between STEM and reading—both are critical to our future economic prosperity and national security. But funding STEM while neglecting literacy puts the educational cart before the horse. Trying to teach engineering to kids who struggle with reading will impart much more frustration than knowledge. To get the most value from our overall investment in education, we need to ensure students have the foundational reading skills that STEM is built on.

In the absence of federal leadership, states are beginning to act. In the past three years alone, 19 governors have signed new early reading programs into law. Collectively, states are investing over $300 million per year in their own early reading initiatives. Decades of research have proven that a number of strategies demonstrably boost reading achievement for kids, including tutoring, small-group assistance, and whole-class and whole-school strategies.

But given the scope of the early reading crisis, states need a federal partner to help them move the needle on reading achievement. Funding is needed to help schools implement proven early reading approaches, and to incentivize schools to use their own Title I and other resources to implement proven programs. There is no subject for which we have a broader range of proven approaches, yet most schools continue to use run-of-the-mill, untested materials and methods.

Investing in early reading not only makes good educational sense, it makes good financial sense. There’s plenty of evidence demonstrating that dollars spent helping a child with reading can avoid tens or even hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars down the road in public assistance, health, and public safety programs.

Congress and the president should make a commitment that every American child will have the support they need to become a strong reader, no excuses and no matter what. We should have a federal budget that reflects that priority.

The right solution to the challenge of the early reading achievement gap isn’t to give up. Rather, we need to refocus our strategy and double down on what’s working. I hope more Americans will join us in urging that our federal education budget reflect the high priority that early reading deserves.

Slavin is co-founder and chair of the Success for All Foundation, which develops and disseminates research-proven educational programs to ensure that students from all backgrounds achieve at the highest academic levels.  He is also director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. Lombardo is CEO of Reading Partners, a national nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one reading tutoring to elementary school students reading below grade level to increase their reading proficiency. He is also a social-entrepreneur-in-residence at Stanford University and on the advisory council of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

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