The Launch of a Campaign to Promote Grade-Level Reading

Very few of us can deny there is a problem with American education. The statistics are staggering:

  • The school-drop out rate is high: 16% of 16-24 year olds have dropped out of high school without a diploma.
  • The college completion rate is low: the United States had fallen from first to ninth in the percentage of college graduates. The country’s college-completion rate is now 40%.

But what should be done?  A few months ago, I talked with Ralph Smith, the Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation about this problem that he and so many of us have been preoccupied by. He said to me then that the problem isn’t only money—philanthropies and others have been investing a great deal of money in trying to improve education. Neither is the problem not knowing what works—there are many successful endeavors throughout the country.

Last week, the foundation community unveiled an important solution—the Campaign to Address Grade Level Reading. It was my honor to be present at the creation and to speak at this event.

As a rallying cry, this campaign selected notion that all children should read at grade level by the end of third grade. They selected this problem because, in the words of a report produced by the Finance Project, Learning to Read:

Reading at grade level by the end of third grade is a critical predictor of later academic success.

They also picked this rallying cry because far too many children are missing the mark: 83% of all low-income children fail to achieve this critical milestone.

The goal is to increase by at least 50% the number of low-income children reading by the end of third grade in at least a dozen states.

Now, selecting a goal, any goal, can have its detractors. Why third-grade—isn’t that too late? Why just reading—kids need so much more? And how are we going to promote this goal, because most people know that it can be promoted in ways that ignore how children learn best?

If the launch event is any indication of the success of this campaign, it addressed these valid criticisms and was extremely well orchestrated, for the following ways:

  • It was convened by an impressive network of funders. They included national and community-based funders as well as corporate philanthropies.
  • It drew an impressive group of speakers and participants. The conveners expected 50-75, but the crowd numbered about 250. It included two governors and a mayor as well as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and key members of the administration, like Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education, Joan Lombardi, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Jacqueline Jones, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education.
  • It was not narrowly conceived.  Virtually everyone who spoke saw the grade-level reading goal in the context of rich-multi-faceted learning opportunities that fully engage children and their families from birth on.

Most importantly to me, there was little difference from the “walk” of the gathering and the “talk.” On the first day, speaker after speaker described the “bright spots”—programs that work from all over the country. The message became self-evident. While there are many bright spots, each by itself is not producing the wattage necessary to turn this problem around.

So hopefully, the adults can learn to play together (just as we try to teach our children to do). If we can, then the hopes of this massive effort will not be in vain. It is my most fervent hope, that as we do this, we keep the fire of learning burning brightly in children’s and their families’ and their teachers’ eyes.


Photo/image by: WFIU Public Radio – Indiana Public Media / Flickr