What Third Grade Reading Says About High School Graduation

Here in Chicago last week, the Latino Policy Forum and Advance Illinois co-hosted a breakfast discussion with Donald Hernandez, a sociologist with Hunter College, City University of New York, about his recent research showing that children’s reading prowess in third grade strongly predicts whether or not they will graduate from high school. A small group of educators, policy analysts and foundation officers used the findings as a springboard to talk about what can be done in Illinois to increase the number of students reading proficiently by third grade, especially among Latinos and English-language learners.

Hernandez stated the main point of his research succinctly: “Lack of reading proficiency compounds the effect of poverty on graduation rates.” In other words, children who have spent even one year of their lives in poverty are less likely to graduate from high school than children who come from more affluent families. When children in poverty can’t read well by third grade, their chances of graduating from high school shrink even more.

Those gathered at the meeting discussed a number of strategies that could reduce the number of children in this kind of “double jeopardy.” A critical piece would be not only developing more and better early childhood programs–especially in the underserved Latino neighborhoods of Chicago and its suburbs–but also connecting those programs to K-3 in neighborhood public schools so that children’s early learning gains don’t fade out once they start elementary school. Illinois is working on changing its teacher licensing system to align better from pre-K through 3rd grade and also retooling principal preparation to ensure elementary school principals better understand how to work with early educators.

On a parallel track, the group discussed the importance of helping families engage in their children’s early learning.  Hernandez’s report recommends using “two-generation” strategies to educate parents and ensure families have access to health insurance so their children can get help with developmental delays as well as routine health conditions.

Some story ideas occurred to me as I listened to the discussion:

1. Spend two days with two early educators with similar credentials working with similar students but in different settings. For example,  watch an early educator working in an elementary school’s state pre-kindergarten program and compare her day–class size, curriculum and her pay–to that of an early educator working with four-year-olds in a private,  licensed daycare center who is likely making a lot less money. How similar are the experiences for the children? How do differences in pay and working conditions affect the early educators’ views of their jobs?

2. Talk with stay-at-home Latina moms to find out why their children are or are not in preschool. While there’s a common perception that Latino families want to keep their children at home for cultural reasons, Latino Policy Forum’s Sylvia Puente calls that a myth and cites research showing that most if not all the differential in Latino preschool enrollment can be explained by economics. Puente cites the popularity of half-day preschool run by Through A Child’s Eyes in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill. as an example to break the stereotype.

3. Reporters can look at teacher licensing issues by talking with elementary school teachers and principals about current staffing practices, which sometimes call for upper elementary teachers (6-8) to come back down to K-3. Or the reverse: I can recall one occasion when a kindergarten teacher was reassigned to 8th grade math following a wholesale shakeup of the school’s faculty. What age groupings make the most sense to working teachers and principals, and are those groupings the ones favored by policymakers? Here in Illinois, the issue of licensing is becoming even more complicated with the recent state rule that preschool teachers working with large numbers of English-language learners must have a bilingual teaching credential.

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