The Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report in 2010 detailing how important it is for kids to learn to read by third grade. Sara Sparks also wrote about this issue on April 3, 2011 on the Education Week’s blog Inside School Research. Both reports cited a study done by Donald J. Hernandez, of City University in New York, who found that children who struggled with learning to read in elementary school, specifically by third grade, comprised 88 percent of students who dropped out of high school without a diploma. In fact, reading proficiency and reading at grade level by third grade was a better predictor of graduating high school than poverty level. Mr. Hernandez posited that third grade was a pivotal point because after third grade, schools no longer teach reading, instead students are using their reading skills to learn new information.
Dropping out of high school has high costs for both society and the person who has dropped out. In the United States, nearly 16 percent of 16-24 year olds drop out or almost 6.2 million students. Every person who has dropped out costs society around $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity; they are also more likely to be arrested, live in poverty, or have a child as a teenager, incurring more personal and societal costs. Further, the current population of high schoolers is insufficient to replace the retiring baby boomers in the workforce. Thus, if every high school student graduated and obtained post-high school education, there are jobs enough for all of them.
The choice to drop out of high school begins for many in struggles to learn in elementary school. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report, 71 percent of fourth garders in cities and 62 percent of those in suburbs scored below proficiency and below basic on reading tests. This lack of reading proficiency by fourth grade is especially high among low-income and minority students. Programs like Head Start are essential to turning this river of failure in a new direction.
We, as a society, cannot afford to strangle the investment in early childhood education programs that promote reading proficiency and the ability to learn; otherwise, we doom our society to increasing rates of poverty and the lack of skilled workers to carry the economy and our society forward.