BRT CEOs, McQueen Agree: Improving Reading is a Top Priority

Less than two months after top U.S. CEOs said that improving early reading is the key to closing the “skills gap,” Tennessee’s state K- 12 education leaders have launched the second phase of an initiative which aims at the “sweet spot” for literacy and future attainment: third grade reading.

On February 23, Commissioner Candice McQueen and other leaders from the TN Department of Education reported on progress made in the first year of the Ready to be Ready initiative, which focuses on improving elementary reading skills. McQueen and the Department said that Tennessee’s approach to addressing its 3rd- grade- reading gap should focus on these steps:

  1. Students need more opportunities to practice reading foundational skills within authentic reading and writing experiences.

  2. Texts should be intentionally selected and sequenced to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary.

  3. Students need to be assigned standards-aligned, challenging tasks that ask them to demonstrate understanding of complex and interesting texts, analysis of the author’s craft, and/or the knowledge they gained from the content of those texts.

  4. Teachers should make use of strong question sequences that support student understanding and analysis of complex, high quality texts.

The urgency of taking the steps laid out by Commissioner McQueen is underscored by a December 2016 report issued by the Washington, DC- based Business Roundtable (BRT). According to the report, entitled “Why Reading Matter s and What to do About It: A CEO Action Plan to Suppor t Improved U.S. Literacy Rates,” more than 90% of BRT’s member CEOs say that current skills shortages present a problem for their company or industry– and they predict greater demand for more highly educated workers over the next decade.

Concluding that ‘a focus on improving third grade reading proficiency offers a uniquely powerful lever to address many aspects of the skills gap over the long term,’ the report cites several compelling ways in which improving early literacy connects strongly to workforce performance:

  1. Students who develop strong reading skills at an early age are much more likely to graduate from high school and seek post-secondary education and training.

  2. Reading is a key component of “soft skills,” such as communications, and it bolsters analytical thinking.

  3. Students need especially strong reading skills to acquire knowledge in STEM fields.

  4. Workers in STEM jobs must have advanced literacy skills to read and communicate about scientific and technical topics.

  5. Research consistently shows that reading itself is one of the most commonly- and intensively- used skills among all types of jobs across the entire U.S. economy.

“Well- established national research shows that students who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19,” points out TBR Director of Policy & Research Cassie Foote. “The BRT report amplifies why such reading deficiencies eventually prevent students from reaching their full potential in the workforce– and why that’s an urgent matter for states like Tennessee, where only 34%of our fourth-grade students scored proficient in reading on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).”

The BRT report recommends six “policy steps” it says states should consider in order to promote reading proficiency by third grade (see below), and also suggests actions for concerned CEOs to take in support of that goal.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee the Department of Human Services has invested $30  million in the Read to be Ready Summer Grant program, with the goal of increasing the number of students receiving literacy support and instruction during the summer months from 600 in 2016 to 10,000 in 2017. Tennessee companies are encouraged to support the state’s ambitious goal of increasing the percentage of 3rd grade students reading on grade level from 43% to 75% by 2025 by taking the Read to be Ready Business Pledge and “committing to complete at least two literary- themed challenges each year.”

BRT: Six State Policy Steps to Ensure Reading Proficiency by Third Grade

1. Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K Learning Opportunities 2. Offer High-Quality Full-Day Kindergarten that Ensures a Successful Transition to Elementary School 3. Use Student Assessments and Data Systems To Track Student Progress 4. Equip Educators in Pre-K-Grade 3 To Help Students Become Strong Readers 5. Require Systematic Interventions for Struggling Readers in Grades K-3 6. Coordinate Governance of Pre-K and Grades K-3 To Promote Efficiency and Maximize Impact

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