Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

CommonWealth Magazine has posted a column — Reading law targets daunting problem – on its website. In it, I write about the latest MCAS results and the momentum building to improve third grade reading. Here it is:

On September 26, surrounded by children in the Robin Hood School library in Stoneham, Gov. Deval Patrick signed An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency into law. Three weeks later, Ralph Smith, managing director of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, arrived in Massachusetts to present state and local officials an award for passing the law and engaging communities to improve early literacy. Secretary of Education Paul Reville called the recognition a “down payment on work to come.”

On one hand, the “work to come” is daunting. Statewide, 39 percent of third graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2012 MCAS, performance that has remained virtually unchanged since 2001 when 38 percent scored below proficient. Among children from low-income families, a staggering 60 percent lag in reading. One in six children who struggled with reading in third grade do not graduate high school by age 19, a rate, research finds, that’s quadruple the rate for children who read proficiently in third grade. Consider that the average high school dropout in Massachusetts costs taxpayers an estimated $349,000 more over a lifetime than the average graduate – in reduced revenues and increased public assistance costs – and the magnitude of the problem becomes clear.

As proud as we are that Massachusetts is a national leader in education, here, too, a closer look reveals ample cause for concern. The Commonwealth’s fourth graders are the country’s top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but only half scored proficient or above in reading. Massachusetts is home to one of the country’s most sophisticated and innovative economies. It also has an aging workforce and an increasingly diverse population of children. Our ability to remain competitive in a global economy depends on our ability to maintain a pipeline of skilled, well-educated workers.

On the other hand, however, Massachusetts is well-positioned to meet the challenge. The new law, which the Legislature approved with significant bipartisan support, represents an important step in the right direction. It establishes a panel of early literacy experts to advise state agencies on research-based strategies to improve the language and literacy development of children from birth to age 9.

Across the state, communities are mobilizing to tackle the problem. Smith visited five cities — Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester – that together are home to 100,000 children under 10. All five have developed plans that recognize that the path to reading success begins at birth, with children’s earliest language development, and includes high-quality early education. All five recognize that responsibility for improving reading outcomes does not rest with schools and early education providers alone.

The challenge is immense. In Boston, 65 percent of third graders scored below proficient in reading. The percentages were equally troubling in Holyoke (80 percent), Pittsfield (49 percent), Springfield (60 percent), and  Worcester (59 percent).

“One of these days we may have to explain to our children and grandchildren how this was possible,” Smith, who is also senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said at the event at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that kicked off the tour coordinated by Strategies for Children. “How can we know as much as we know and spend as much as we spend” and still have this problem?

The solution, says Nonie Lesaux, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lies within reach. Lesaux is the author of “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” which Strategies for Children commissioned in 2010.

“We know more today than we ever have about reading and language development,” Lesaux said at the Boston event. It is, she said, “a dynamic process” that begins at birth and happens in all settings – home, classroom, grocery store, library – where children learn. Refocusing Massachusetts for reading success requires programs designed with sufficient intensity; language-rich curricula across the disciplines and language-rich environments; professional development that is ongoing, data-driven, and linked to practice; developmentally appropriate assessment that informs instruction; and family engagement.

“We’re ultimately trying to change behaviors,” Lesaux said. The steps to reaching this goal fall along a continuum that starts with raising awareness – periodic independent learning opportunities, public service announcements, pamphlets, one-off workshops — and ends with changed behavior and improved reading outcomes.

“We have a lot of effort on the raising awareness side and need a lot more heft and resources on the changing behavior side. It’s going to take more time and resources. This isn’t just about more money, but about reallocating resources so we focus first on depth and then reaching more individuals,” Lesaux said.“There’s no question we’re well poised. We could, on behalf of children, take it to the next level by applying an even more critical lens to what we’re doing.”

John Bissell, executive vice president of the Greylock Federal Credit Union in Pittsfield,  was among those listening to Smith and Lesaux. He co-chairs the Pittsfield Promise, a coalition working to improve children’s reading proficiency. Businesspeople “are accustomed to taking clear, compelling data and acting on it,” Bissell said in closing remarks. “I am incapable of sitting and listening to the same problems being talked about over and over without doing something about it. We have been looking at the same data for decades….If I knew my business was threatened by a flood, any business leader would pay attention to that. Yet we know the floodwaters are rising in our communities,” he said. “We know what needs to be done.”