From left, Amy O'Leary; Rep. Marty Walz; Sen. Katherine Clark; Commissioner Mitchell Chester; Margaret Blood; Commissioner Sherri Killins (Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children)

Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, today announced legislation to focus state efforts to ensure that children become proficient readers by the end of third grade. Representative Martha Walz (D-Boston) and Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) are the bill’s lead sponsors.

Early Education for All (EEA) unveiled “An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency” at a Kick-Off for Children event at the State House to mark the start of a new gubernatorial term and legislative session. Secretary of Education Paul Reville reiterated the administration’s commitment to improving early literacy in remarks before an audience of almost 100 EEA coalition members, legislators, policymakers and legislative staff.

“If we are serious about this aspirational goal of reading proficiency, we have no choice but to build out our system. It’s a system of education – capital ‘E’ education – that begins at birth. It begins with providing service to children in their earliest years,” Reville said. “It’s not only a moral obligation. It’s an economic imperative. If we want to be competitive in the 21st century, we’re going to compete on the basis of brain power. And brain power starts with early childhood.”

Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Department of Early Education and Care and Commissioner Mitchell Chester of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education delivered their remarks standing side by side at the podium to symbolize their collaboration.  Representative Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) and Representative Walz also spoke. Senator Clark was scheduled to give remarks, but was called to a Senate roll call.

Walz borrowed from the words of President Kennedy, who was inaugurated 50 years ago. “Let the word go forth,” Walz said. “We are going to have third grade reading proficiency for all the children in the state of Massachusetts.”

The legislation follows the release in June of “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” a report commissioned by Strategies for Children from Nonie Lesaux, Ph.D., a nationally recognized expert in language development and literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The report drew attention to a serious problem in cities, suburbs and rural communities across the commonwealth. Despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a national leader in education, far too many children are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, thus failing to meet a critical benchmark that strongly predicts their chances of success in school and beyond. Overall, 37% of Massachusetts third graders read below grade level; among children from low-income families, 57% lag in reading. Research indicates that 74% of children who read poorly in third grade have a significantly reduced likelihood of graduating from high school.

The bill would establish the Massachusetts Early Reading Council to advise state education departments on statewide early language and reading strategies for children from birth to third grade. The council would provide guidance to ensure that:

The council would be established within the Executive Office of Education and would be co-chaired by the secretary of education and a recognized expert in children’s language and literacy development. State legislators, early educators, parents, elementary school principals, superintendents, reading specialists, school committee members, teachers union representatives, pediatricians and advocates would serve on the 17-member council.

In addition to announcing the legislation, EEA urged the administration and Legislature to protect funding for high-quality early education in fiscal 2012. Research shows that high-quality early education improves children’s language development, a critical precursor to literacy, as well as other academic and social-emotional skills.

“Massachusetts is rightfully proud of our well-earned reputation as a national leader in education,” said EEA Director Amy O’Leary. “We now have a chance to lead again by laying a foundation for success for children from birth to age 9. We have a chance to show the nation how to produce a state filled with children who leave third grade as strong and competent readers, confident of their future success.”