Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Last month’s release of the 2014 MCAS scores revealed that our third grade reading proficiency rates have not changed since last year. Once again, 43 percent of third graders statewide did not score in the proficient range in reading. That’s roughly 29,000 children who did not meet this crucial educational benchmark. And as the research shows, the consequences of reading failure at this age are significant.

To change the trajectory of early literacy in Massachusetts, advocates, literacy experts, practitioners, and state policymakers are taking action. The state’s Early Literacy Expert Panel has just released its Year One Annual Report. It’s an early look into the critical work this panel was charged with: providing “recommendations to state education agencies on the alignment, coordination, implementation and improvement of all existing efforts that bear on children’s literacy outcomes, guided by the goal of improving third grade reading outcomes in the Commonwealth.”

Overseen by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education, the panel will ultimately submit its recommendations to the Departments of Early Education and Care (EEC), Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE), and Higher Education (DHE).

The panel’s history dates back to 2010, when Strategies for Children released “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts on Reading Success,” a report written by Nonie Lesaux, a professor and renowned literacy expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

That report presented a blueprint for improving children’s reading outcomes across Massachusetts and eventually helped inform the bill An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency, signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in 2012. The law established the Early Literacy Expert Panel, which will meet through 2016.

The First Year’s Work

Co-chaired by Lesaux and Massachusetts’ Secretary of Education Matthew Malone, the panel met six times in fiscal year 2014 and started work on two initial phases.

Phase one involved “preliminary mapping and information gathering, both of promising state-level initiatives across the country as well as current Massachusetts initiatives focused on four critical areas of literacy.” These areas are:

– assessing learning and development

– promoting reading skills,

– building adult capacity, and,

– building language from birth to age 8

For phase two, the panel is using what it learned in phase one to identify two early priorities and develop supporting recommendations that are “amenable to both policymakers and ground-level leaders.” These recommendations will be:

– “feasible with respect to resources”

– “synchronous with the current context and policy environment”

– “evidence-based”

– “equitable in their implementation across populations, communities, and institutions,” and

– “largely universal in nature, in order to have an effect on all children and families in the Commonwealth”

Among the early priorities the panel is considering is how to better align “early intervention and home visiting programs with the Commonwealth’s system of early education and care, expanding screening programs, and identifying new assessment opportunities for early elementary students.”

Next Steps

As the report explains: “The Executive Office of Education is excited to be leading the Early Literacy Expert Panel and will continue to work closely with all three agencies (EEC, ESE, DHE) to inform each of the Panel’s progress, seek input, and to identify opportunities for collaboration.”

As it moves forward, the panel will “develop bold, actionable recommendations supported by evidence that will set Massachusetts on a course to closing its early literacy achievement gaps and ensuring that all students are proficient readers by third grade.”

It’s important and promising work. Increasing the number of skilled third-grade readers provides children with a strong foundation for continued success in school and beyond, and will give Massachusetts the human capital it needs to prosper throughout the 21st century.