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How Minnesota Is Addressing Third-Grade Literacy Well Before Third Grade

Abbie Lieberman explores how far one state has gone in improving early literacy—and how far all 50 still have to go.
(Photo: Oleksandr Berezko/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Oleksandr Berezko/Shutterstock)

I volunteer at a local elementary school on Monday mornings, tutoring children who are behind in reading. This week, I worked with Carla (whose name has been changed), a third-grade dual language learner who is reading at a first-grade level. She knows that she is behind and her confidence is low. She told me how much she disliked reading and insisted that she would never catch up to her peers. I could see Carla’s frustration mounting during our hour together. She’s feeling pressure from the invested adults in her life—teachers, school leaders, parents, and tutors—to get up to speed quickly.

That pressure isn’t without reason: Third-grade reading proficiency is predictive of future success, both inside and outside of the classroom. It has become one of the most commonly cited indicators of student achievement. To use one example: Students who aren’t proficient readers by the end of third grade are less likely to graduate high school. Readers who are not yet proficient by the end of third grade are ill-prepared for fourth, a transitional year in which content and texts become much more complex. Children who are not up to speed by then continue to fall further and further behind.

Unfortunately, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, termed the Nation’s Report Card, shows that my experience with Carla was not at all unique. Our education system is failing the majority of third graders with respect to literacy. The NAEP fourth-grade reading assessment is essentially a thermometer that tells us how healthy our education system is. Based on 2013 assessment results, only 34 percent of fourth graders are proficient readers. NAEP scores also reveal some of the gross inequities in our education system: Only 18 percent of black fourth graders were proficient readers in 2013, compared with 46 percent of their white peers. The statistics surrounding dual language learners are even worse: Only 13 percent were proficient readers by fourth grade.

Our close look at Minnesota’s pre-K–third grade policies shed light on inconsistencies in the state and the importance of implementation.

What can policymakers, school leaders, and teachers do to lessen this gap? They can stop it before it starts. Of course reading interventions matter, but they alone are not enough. Research suggests that strong and aligned educational experiences during the first eight years of children’s lives, especially from pre-K through third grade, can provide them with the foundation of cognitive, social, and emotional skills they need to succeed in the future. Reading interventions are important during these years, but they alone are not enough.

In the new report "Building Strong Readers in Minnesota: PreK-3rd Grade Policies That Support Children’s Literacy Development," Laura Bornfreund and I examine how state policies and local initiatives in Minnesota are shaping children’s learning trajectories across the pre-K–third grade continuum to improvement their literacy development. While Minnesota is often praised as a leader in the education policy world, the state’s education system is still failing thousands of students, particularly black and Hispanic children, those from low-income families, and dual language learners.

State policymakers have been thinking strategically about pre-K–third grade alignment for a few years now, and have initiated some promising policies. Overall, the state of Minnesota has created a solid framework on which districts can build that includes: a progressive equitable funding formula, multiple pre-K funding streams, statewide funding for full-day kindergarten, a specific early childhood education teacher license, professional development for principals around pre-K–third alignment, legislation specifically supporting dual-language learners, and more.

However, because Minnesota is a proud local-control state, the state's department of education “has embraced the role of nudging localities towards this work instead of implementing policies that mandate a pre-K–third mindset,” as we explain in the report. Therefore, many of the policies around pre-K–third alignment have only been successful when strong districts or school leaders prioritize them.

Consider, for example, the Bloomington Public Schools’ efforts on pre-K. Pre-K is an important part of the pre-K–third continuum. If students have strong educational experiences early on, they’re better positioned to be on track to reading well by the end of third grade. Bloomington Public Schools has managed to secure a Kinderprep spot for every eligible child. Kinderprep is the district’s tuition-free, half-day, early literacy pre-K program serving at-risk four-year-olds. Bloomington leaders realize the importance of giving students a strong start and have been braiding and blending funding from various streams to ensure that Kinderprep is available to all who want it. The district is already reaping the benefits of this investment. Kinderprep students are scoring higher on early assessments than their peers who did not attend the program, and teachers report fewer behavioral challenges with Kinderprep students in later grades.

Unfortunately, the opportunity provided to at-risk students in Bloomington is not the norm in Minnesota. Across the state, districts offer pre-K programs that vary in both quantity and quality. Very few districts are able to provide a spot for every eligible child. Even Saint Paul Public Schools, a district which is deeply committed to early learning, has about 300 children on its pre-K waiting list at any given time. In some districts, school pre-K programs only serve children for one day per week or use state funding for summer programs, which are rarely sufficient to prepare children for kindergarten on their own.

The majority of children in Minnesota attend home-based or center-based pre-K. Children from low-income families are eligible to receive Early Learning Scholarships, which are essentially vouchers, to supplement the cost of these programs. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of eligible children receive these scholarships due to limited funding, and, often, those who do receive them find they are not generous enough to cover the full cost of care. In some rural school districts, no children had access to scholarships last year.

Our close look at Minnesota’s pre-K–third grade policies shed light on inconsistencies in the state and the importance of implementation. Minnesota’s pre-K–third grade work is headed in the right direction, but it still has a great distance to travel.

The same is true for most other states too. This Minnesota report is just one of two to be released ahead of a 50-state scan of states’ birth-through-third grade policies supporting children’s literacy development. Our team is looking comprehensively at how state policies are helping children like Carla get and stay on the path to being good readers by the end of third grade. The scan and rankings will be released in November on Atlas, the Education Policy Program’s new interactive, data visualization tool.

It’s one that, we hope, will lead states and school districts to read their policies closely in an effort to encourage Carla and those like her to read closely too.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.