Report looks at role of poverty, parents in student success

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The Washington Post
By: Valerie Strauss
May 18, 2010

If you doubt that poverty plays a role in student achievement, look at these statistics cited in a report released Tuesday by the Casey Foundation:

  • 85 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools and who took the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test don't read proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade.

But the problem is not just in high-poverty schools:

  • 83 percent of children from low-income families in any school can't read proficiently by the time they get to fourth grade.

The report's new look at how poorly millions of American children read is sobering, if not revelatory. We've known for a long time that poverty is connected to achievement in school.

Some school reformers like to say that poverty is used as an excuse for the failure of students to progress, but actually, poverty is a condition that most certainly affects the learning dynamic, and any effort to pretend that it isn't is akin to ignoring the elephant in the room.

The report, "EARLY WARNING!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters," is the latest in a series of "Kids Count" analyses by the Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that advocates for policies to help poor children and families.

The authors take the 2009 reading test results released in March from NAEP--considered to be the gold standard in K-12 standardized assessment--and break down the numbers to show how well different groups of disadvantaged students are doing:

  • 90 percent of low-income black students in high-poverty schools were not reading at grade level by fourth grade.
  • 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty did not reach the goal.
  • 88 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools missed the mark.
  • 82 percent of Hispanic students in schools with low or moderate rates of families living in poverty did not read at grade level.

One thing the report does not do is put the blame wholly on teachers for a lack of student success. It discusses, and makes recommendations to improve, other factors beyond the school building that affect how well millions of young children learn.

The report argues for the development of an integrated system of early care and education that helps children from birth so that they are ready to succeed in school and can read by the end of third grade.

Reading proficiency by fourth grade has long been considered an important marker in educational development because that, traditionally, has been when students start reading to learn as opposed to learning to read.

But for most of the past decade, under No Child Left Behind, traditional developmental stages in learning have been disregarded. Curriculum that used to be taught in one grade is now often taught earlier, and today, kids who can't read by the end of first grade are often already in such deep reading trouble that they don't catch up.

Education writer Richard Whitmire's new book, "Why Boys Fail," blames the problems boys have in school on the fact that kids are being forced to use literacy skills at very young grades--and boys take longer to develop them but are no longer given the time.

The Casey Foundation is joining with partners in more than a dozen states to support a decade-long campaign to improve reading proficiency among young kids, with a goal of increasing by 50 percent the number and proportion of students who are grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.

The report also discusses two problems that affect student performance that are not within the power of a school to solve: Student absences from school, and the problem of summer learning loss among children in low-income families.

It recommends that schools and school districts develop interventions to catch and track absences and develop early warning systems and parent-centered interventions, and calls for a community effort to keep children engaged in learning during the summer.
One important focus of the report is on parent responsibility. It says:

There is no substitute for the parent's or primary caregiver's role as a child's first teacher, best coach, and most concerned advocate. This role begins early and covers a lot of ground.

Parents should: read to and converse with their very young children to instill the language and vocabulary skills that lead to proficient reading later on; cultivate a joy of learning and a desire for education--and then make sure their children show up for school every day; understand why it's important to read proficiently by the end of third grade and then proactively monitor their child's progress toward that goal; encourage their children to choose reading as a free-time activity; find and mobilize help from teachers, schools, education specialists, and/or medical professionals if the child struggles to read; find afterschool activities for their children that provide literacy enrichment and summer activities that protect against summer learning loss; and develop their own literacy and English language skills, if necessary, so they can help their children succeed in school.

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