Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

Last fall, the Massachusetts Legislature passed and Governor Patrick signed “An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency,” into law, taking a bold step to address and improve the state’s literacy efforts.

There has been growing recognition of the importance of helping children read well by the end of third grade. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not yet made progress in improving third grade reading outcomes.

What’s needed is a birth-through-age-nine approach that aligns research, policy and best practices, and ensures all children have learning experiences in language-rich environments that help them learn to read and love to read.

The bill had the support of advocates around the state and the leadership of its sponsors: former Representative Martha Walz (D-Boston) and Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose). It was also supported by the two education committee co-chairs, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley).

“We know that a child who can read by third grade has a better chance to succeed in his or her adult life,” Governor Patrick stated at the time of the bill signing. “With this legislation, we will develop a plan for students and teachers to achieve that goal, and thereby provide the best chance for our children to succeed in the 21st century global economy.”

The law creates “an Early Literacy Expert Panel to advise state education agencies on the alignment, coordination and implementation – from early education and care through the primary grades — of language-rich curriculum, effective instructional practices, professional development and training, developmentally appropriate assessment, and family partnership,” as we explained in a blog entry.

This law also addresses several key recommendations that were made to improve third grade reading scores in the 2010 research report, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success.” The report was commissioned by Strategies for Children and written by Nonie Lesaux, a nationally recognized literacy expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The panel will submit its recommendations to the departments of Early Education and Care, Elementary and Secondary Education, and Higher Education – offering guidance on “better aligning and coordinating current initiatives and improving the implementation of programs to ultimately get every student in the Commonwealth reading proficiently by the end of third grade,” according to a press release from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education.  The panel held its first meeting last month.

There is an urgent need for this work. As the release notes, “Three-quarters of children who struggle with reading in third grade will continue to struggle academically, greatly reducing their chances of graduating from high school, going to college or successfully participating in a 21st century high skill economy.”

“By investing in early literacy, we are providing children with a foundation for future academic and economic success,” Secretary of Education Matthew Malone said in the release. Malone co-chairs the committee with Harvard’s Nonie Lesaux.

“An Act relative to third grade reading proficiency is the first of its kind in the nation, setting the stage for a truly state-wide effort to improve third grade reading outcomes,” Lesaux said in the release.

The panel begins its work in the shadow of the recent release of third grade MCAS scores, which concealed “a hidden story that is cause for concern: 43 percent of the state’s third graders are not proficient readers – compared to 39 percent last year.” That hidden story is told in an article in Commonwealth Magazine co-written by Christopher Martes, interim superintendent of the Wrentham Public Schools and former president and executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and by Carolyn Lyons, president and CEO of Strategies for Children.

The article adds: “Among children from low-income families, a shocking 65 percent lag in reading. Disturbingly, these scores have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

“The numbers are especially troubling in our 26 Gateway Cities – the large and midsize cities that serve as economic engines. In these cities, an average of 58 percent of third graders are not able to read proficiently, including 72 percent of children in Chelsea and 87 percent in Holyoke. In Boston, 68 percent of third graders are not proficient readers.”

Joining the co-chairs on the panel are seven members:

– Lisa Antonelli, a Kindergarten 1 Teacher at the Franklin D. Roosevelt School in Boston

– Maryellen Brunelle, Superintendent of the Auburn Public Schools

– Joan Kagan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Square One

– Kelly Kulsrud, Director of Reading Proficiency at Strategies for Children

– Mariela M. Páez, Associate Professor of Education at Boston College

– Dr. Jessica R. Roth, Children’s Hospital Boston and the Martha Eliot Health Center

– Wayne Ysaguirre, President and CEO of Associated Early Care and Education, Inc.

We look forward to seeing the panel’s progress and to hearing its recommendations over the next two years. As Lyons recently said, “Giving young children the strong start they deserve helps secure a strong future for the commonwealth.”