Ellen Weaver

Read to Succeed Must Cross the Legislative Finish Line

May 29, 2014

Ellen Weaver

by Ellen Weaver

The ability to read is a primary gateway to success in school and life-long learning. A child who does not master this fundamental skill faces daunting odds. Consider these sobering statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

Children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to not graduate high school.
Below basic readers are almost 6 times more likely than proficient readers to not finish high school on time.
Poor, Black, and Hispanic students who are struggling readers are about 8 times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

Why is this the case? Because from kindergarten through third grade, students are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade a student is asked to use their reading skills in order to learn. If a student struggles to read when they enter fourth grade, not only are they already behind most of their peers but they are also at great risk of falling further and further off the pace.

Right here in South Carolina, the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows that 51% of low income 4th grade students and 40% of all 4th grade students cannot read at even a basic level. We face a truly monumental task.

But the good news is pioneering states like Florida have shown there is a proven path forward. And with the “Read to Succeed” legislation modeled on Florida’s success currently moving through the General Assembly, it’s clear that South Carolina legislators understand the urgency of the need.

Two bills — S. 516 and H. 3994, sponsored by Senator Harvey Peeler and Representative Andy Patrick respectively — have the potential to profoundly change the future for thousands of Palmetto State students. These bills put a laser focus on literacy, hands down the most critical skill our schools must teach. By putting priority on key policy components like improved teacher training, state and district reading plans, summer reading camps and reading readiness assessments, we can help students unlock the door to reading success.

Much attention has been placed on the third-grade retention portion of the policy as if that is all these bills contain. But that is only the last resort for struggling students. The true power of Florida’s successful model stems from the dynamic duo of support and accountability.

To retain third-graders who struggle to read but not provide them with a new and intensive literacy action plan would not help the underlying problem at all. Indeed, it’s pure folly to ask a student to simply repeat a grade and expect a different result. On the other hand, calling for early interventions and greater literacy support for students and teachers without drawing a hard line in the sand at the end of third-grade is an inefficient strategy, since as the Casey statistics illustrate, proficient third-grade reading is the non-negotiable end goal that will enable long-term student success. “Read to Succeed” strikes the right balance between these two critical elements of support and accountability.

Governor Nikki Haley has publicly championed the cause in her executive budget and the House has set aside $30 million to implement the policy. But while both the Senate and House have already passed their own versions of this legislation, a strong version of the bill still needs to cross the legislative finish line with both its accountability and interventions intact.

Similar, stand-alone reading bills have recently been passed by states like Mississippi with broad bipartisan support and South Carolina’s “Read to Succeed” should not be derailed by unrelated agendas. This just might be the most important legislation for our state in the last decade.

A strong, focused “Read to Succeed” policy will open up new worlds of learning for struggling readers in the Palmetto State. Let’s cross the legislative finish line together this year to give them that opportunity.