Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

Barbara O’Brien, former lieutenant governor of Colorado and a consultant to the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, offers a prescription for ensuring that children become proficient readers by the end of third grade. The key is to start early. “By the end of third grade, a student is halfway between birth and young adulthood,” O’Brien writes in Education Week. (See “How Serious Are We About Early Learning?“)

Noting that over the past year more than a dozen states enacted laws designed to improve third grade reading, O’Brien urges a step back from the debate and/or legislation in a number of states focused on retaining third graders who struggle with reading. Here in Massachusetts, An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency would establish an Early Literacy Expert Panel to advise state education agencies on research-based strategies to improve the language and literacy development of children from birth to age 9.

“Everyone who has the ability to direct resources, whether they are philanthropic grants, public funds, or volunteer-based, should ensure that every young child who is likely to struggle in school has these opportunities to become ready for school: evidence-based home-visiting and parenting programs, access to primary health care and developmental services, timely and appropriate referrals to early intervention and special education, access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, access to excellent child care and Head Start, and access to high-quality, full-day kindergarten programs,” O’Brien writes. “Yes, these interventions cost money, but the amount pales in comparison to the societal burdens—financial and otherwise—associated with high school dropouts and prison inmates, two groups with traditionally high illiteracy rates.”

O’Brien calls, too, for effective preparation and professional development for primary grade teachers, with an emphasis on teaching reading. She calls for high expectations, identifying children who are falling behind with early-warning systems, time for planning from the classroom to district level, and polices to reduce chronic absences and summer learning loss.

“Will legislators and school boards have the intestinal fortitude to make tough budget, program, and policy decisions to solve the reading crisis?” O’Brien asks. “We’re not in the dark when it comes to advancing early-literacy skills…. How serious are we about doing it?”