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September 21, 2012 - Volume 32 Issue 23


“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.” - Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad who influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.




By Patricia S. Kusimo

"We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far."
-- Ron Edmonds, Harvard Professor and founder of the Effective Schools movement

When it comes to educating children, poverty matters. In West Virginia, due to significant low-income rates, poverty matters a lot.

The Children's Defense Fund estimates a child is born into poverty in West Virginia once an hour. During the 2011-12 school year, approximately 56 percent of West Virginia's public school students received a free or reduced-priced lunch. In 15 counties, more than 60 percent of children qualify for reduced-price meals. In one county, the amount is 83.4 percent.

Additionally, West Virginia's birth rate for females between ages 15 and 19 increased by 17 percent between 2007 and 2009, while nationally the teen birth rate fell by 8 percent. A child's chances of growing up in poverty are nine times greater if the child is born to an unmarried teen without a high school diploma according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Throughout the nation, achievement gaps exist between poor children and their peers at every grade level and in every subject area. Whither Opportunity, published by the Sage Foundation in 2011, documents how differences in family income exacerbate the educational challenges of poor children. The report notes that in 2005-06, families with incomes in the top 20 percent spent about $7,500 on enrichment activities -- music lessons, travel, summer camps, etc. Access to these kinds of activities may account for “gaps in background knowledge between children from high-income families and those from low-income families that are so predictive of reading skills in the middle and high school years.”

In 2011, just 46 percent of West Virginia's third graders could read at or above the mastery level on the WESTEST2, a custom-designed test for West Virginia students. The results for students receiving free or reduced-price lunches were even lower -- only 37 percent. Third-grade reading achievement is a major warning flag for all students, but especially poor children.

A 2012 Annie E. Casey Foundation study examined the relationship among family income, high school completion and third-grade reading on a national level and found:

  • About 16 percent of children who could not read proficiently by the end of the third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than the rate for proficient readers.
  • This percentage rises to 26 percent for children who have been poor for at least a year of their lives and who could not read proficiently by the end of the third grade.
  • This statistic climbs to 35 percent for children who are poor, who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and who could not read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

Inadequate school attendance is another problem for poor children. Research indicates that poor children tend to miss four times as much school than their more affluent peers. Studies have found a number of reasons, including hunger, asthma, anxiety, fear, insufficient funds for school supplies or books, and a lack of quiet places to read or study.

So, what can be done to ensure that poor students acquire better reading skills? Plenty. The following actions could improve the literacy skills of students in pre-kindergarten through third grade. Some are specific to the challenges we face in West Virginia. Others, generated by the Education Commission of the States, are based on research and geared toward parents, individuals, community leaders and educators in general:

  1. Implement programs to reduce teenage pregnancy rates in West Virginia.
  2. Ensure that caregivers (mothers and child care workers) of infant children living in poverty have the skills, support and nutrition needed to meet the physical, emotional and educational needs of the infants in their care.
  3. Create a sense of urgency among parents and educators around third-grade reading in communities with high poverty rates, emphasizing the benefits of identifying and intervening with children in need of more reading assistance.
  4. Expand the number of quality pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs to give young learners ample opportunities and assistance to develop literacy skills.
  5. Allow expanded learning time – longer school days and school years – so all children, including those living in poverty, can enjoy more enrichment opportunities in the form of arts, travel or summer camps.
  6. Ensure that children from poverty have early learning opportunities that are built around language-rich, rigorous and engaging curricula to develop students' knowledge, vocabulary and skills.
  7. Assess knowledge and reading as early as possible (pre-kindergarten or kindergarten), and provide numerous avenues for identifying struggling readers. Provide professional development opportunities for school leaders, including training on how best to identify and intervene with struggling students and how to evaluate reading teachers.
  8. Require immediate, evidence-based interventions in kindergarten through third grade for struggling readers in schools with high-poverty populations.
  9. Implement strategies to strengthen human capital, such as improving teacher preparation programs, developing professional development on the new Common Core State Standards and leveraging the talent of the most successful reading teachers in other classrooms.
  10. Involve parents and communities in improving reading proficiency by informing parents about their child's reading proficiency, providing them with information on how to work with teachers, promoting partnerships with families that focus on language and learning, and partnering with local media outlets to create early literacy reading campaigns.

Kusimo is president and chief executive officer of The Education Alliance.

Used by permission of the Charleston Gazette. This op-ed appeared in the August 18 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.