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

States face a persistent problem: Classrooms full of children who struggle to read.

“Only about one-third of all children attending school in the United States can read proficiently by fourth grade,” the New America foundation explains on its website. “The numbers are even more dismaying for our most vulnerable students. How can state policymakers lessen the achievement gap and improve literacy outcomes for all children?”

To find answers, New America has taken a look at all 50 states’ birth-to-third-grade policies.

The resulting report is a ranking of states called, “From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth- 3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers.”

“Accompanying the research are interactive maps of state progress displayed via New America’s data visualization and policy analysis tool, Atlas.” This is an easy, graphic way to access findings for individual states.

new am pic


Pointing to achievement gaps that can be seen among toddlers, the report notes:

“The low percentage of American students who are proficient readers is the result of economic, health, education, and other factors. One key variable is that too many state and local education agencies (LEAs) lack a seamless, coordinated, high-quality birth-through-third grade (B–3) continuum of learning.”

The report adds: “Nonie Lesaux, professor of education at Harvard School of Education, has made the case that isolated and compartmentalized policy reforms are insufficient for making sure children are on track in the birth-through-third grade years.”

That’s why states need a “comprehensive approach to literacy” that “includes attention to a wide range of factors, including teacher preparation and professional development; early identification of struggling students and intervention to support their success; comprehensive and shared assessments; language-rich and engaging reading curricula; provision of pre-K and full-day kindergarten; and school-community-family partnerships.”

“Still, it is impractical to take on everything at once; states must start somewhere… we emphasize teachers and leaders, equitable funding, and alignment across the birth-through-third grades,” the report explains. “Our top priority is educators: without well-prepared and adequately supported principals, leaders of early childhood programs, K–3rd teachers, and infant, toddler, and pre-K teachers, little else is possible. This is where states must focus first.”


Understanding State Policies

The report looks at seven areas “that are essential for supporting children’s literacy development and policies that should be part of reading laws when they exist.” These are:

1 – educators: teachers and leaders

2 – standards, assessment, and data

3 – equitable funding

4 – pre-K: access and quality

5 – full-day kindergarten: access and quality

6 – dual language learner supports, and

7 – third grade reading laws

“We placed states into the categories of Crawling, Toddling, or Walking based on their progress toward achieving 65 policy indicators across our seven individual policy areas and across all of them together.”

To do its analysis, New America compiled data from multiple sources — including the Education Commission of the States; NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research); the National Council on Teacher Quality; and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. States were ranked on a 100-point scale, with the largest share of possible points to earn allocated to the educator category.

The results?

“Right now, 11 states are crawling toward making sure children are able to read well by third grade. The majority of states, 34 and Washington, DC, are toddling. Only five states are walking: New York, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. No state is running,” the website says.

Massachusetts falls in the Toddling category and is described as being “Closer to Confident Walking,” a category that puts this state ahead of the other Toddling states that fall into the “Just Took Their First Step” category.

“Even New York, the highest scoring state, only earned the equivalent of a ‘C’ in letter grades,” according to Laura Bornfreund, director of New America’s Early & Elementary Education team and lead author of the report.

The report adds: “Some of the highest scoring states might come as a surprise, such as West Virginia, which doesn’t always rise to the top on most state rankings. The report explains that West Virginia stands out because of its robust state pre-K program that includes basic quality indicators; it also requires districts to offer full-day kindergarten under state statute.”


B-to-3rd in Massachusetts

This report is accompanied by a series of other reports about “states and localities around the United States” that New America’s Early Education Initiative is releasing. 

Among these is a report on Massachusetts called, “Starting Young: Massachusetts Birth-3rd Grade Policies that Support Children’s Literacy Development.”

The report looks at the recent history of early education in the state as well as at progress that has already been made and at challenges that remain.

Highlighting an impressive local effort, the report starts with the description of a “Tuesday evening in May at the Sullivan Apartments (part of the Springfield Housing Authority)” where six-year-old Natali Morales is listening to Courtney Waring read a book called “The Watermelon Seed” by Greg Pizzoli.

After the reading, Natali and the other children get slices of watermelon to eat. Waring, the director of education at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, leads a discussion about other fruits that have seeds, and the children do a related art project. It’s all part of a literacy program that “was implemented under the Talk/Read/Succeed! (TRS) umbrella program. Modeled after New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone.”

“The TRS program is a good illustration of the fact that the most successful educational interventions involve families and begin early, helping to increase the opportunity for a positive life trajectory for every child.”

Indeed, as the report notes, “Massachusetts is a state that adheres to the belief that learning begins at birth and it is working to align its resources accordingly.” However: “The need for high-quality pre-K programs across the state is great.”

The report’s recommendations for the state include:

• developing “a clearly-communicated plan for building the early education and care workforce”

• expanding “investment in high-quality, full-day pre-K, particularly for children in high-need communities”

• eliminating English-only instruction in K–12 and reinstituting a bilingual education model

• continuing support for “the B–3rd alignment partnerships beyond [the] Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge”

• requiring common assessments or allowing districts to “choose from a short list of approved assessments for students in kindergarten through second grade,” and

• deepening the “collaboration between the Department of Early Education and Care and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education” and having them jointly enact the “recommendations from the Early Education to Higher Education Advisory Group to create a new B–3rd teacher certification system” that would replace the pre-K-through-second grade license

Moving Forward

The familiar adage reminds us that it takes a village to raise a child. But New America adds a crucial caveat: It also takes a sophisticated, well-coordinated policy effort.

As the Crawling to Walk Report concludes, distinct policy areas are important on their own, “but the most powerful impacts will be felt when they are considered together. Policies exist in context. Investing in or addressing bits and pieces of a B–3rd approach will not result in considerably better outcomes for all children. What is necessary is a coherent and connected set of policies that flow and fit together.”