Photo: Emily Levine for Strategies for Children

It was standing room only yesterday when the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education heard testimony on An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency (S.188/H.1853) and other bills. Some two dozen people testified in favor of the reading proficiency legislation. They included Alan Ingram, superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools: Dr. Gregory Hagan, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Jill Flanders, principal of Plains Elementary School in South Hadley and the 2010 outstanding principal of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association; Jim Rooney, vice president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council; Susan Leger-Ferraro, CEO of Little Sprouts Child Enrichment Centers; and Nancy Topping-Tailby, executive director of the Massachusetts Head Start Association.

The bill would establish the Massachusetts Early Reading Council comprised of a broad range of experts who would advise state education departments on strategies to improve children’s language and literacy development from birth to age 9. The council would focus on professional development, curriculum, assessment and family engagement – areas identified in the 2010 report “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success” that Strategies for Children (SFC) commissioned from  Nonie Lesaux, a nationally recognized expert in literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The council would develop benchmarks for the state to measure progress, facilitate interagency collaboration and encourage the sharing of best practices. It would be co-chaired by the state’s secretary of education and an outside expert in children’s language and literacy development.

““Dr. Lesaux’s report lays the groundwork for the bill before you today,” testified Representative Martha Walz (D-Boston), who introduced the bill along with Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose). “The Early Reading Council is not meant to be a temporary commission that completes a report and is done. This is intended to be a body of experts” that keeps the state focused on the issue.

At issue are the 37% of Massachusetts third graders who read below grade level, according to the latest MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) results. Among children from low-income families, 57% lag in reading, as do 26% of children from families that are not low-income, making early literacy an issue that resonates across the state. Performance on the third grade reading MCAS has remained stagnant over the past decade, and Massachusetts posts a wide and persistent achievement gap.

“The council would build on the work undertaken by the current administration and Legislature and broaden the expertise around the table,” Amy O’Leary, director of SFC’s Early Education for All Campaign, testified. “It would ensure that this critical issue remains an educational priority that endures beyond the tenure of today’s elected officials and policymakers.”

Lesaux emphasized that the bill focuses on all children, not only children who read below grade level. High-performing American children, she noted, read less well than top performers in other countries. “It is all our children,” she said, “who are vulnerable to reading levels not sufficient for our knowledge-based economy.”

Other legislators who testified on behalf of the bill included Representatives Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset), Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) and Paul Brodeur (D-Melrose). “Forty-one percent of kids in Somerset are not reading proficiently,” Haddad said. “A lot of us in the suburbs thought we were doing a great job. If we don’t have benchmarks we’re going to continue doing things the way we’ve done it.” The council, noted Wolf, “has very prescribed steps to move us forward.”