The Crisis of Post-Pandemic Early Elementary Literacy in Montgomery County MD (part THREE of a four-part series)

So we have an illiteracy problem in early elementary school – yes, even in wealthy, educated Montgomery County.  So what?  They have nine more years of mandatory schooling to catch up, right?

I asked a seasoned public school tutor this question.  His response: “If a child can’t read by 3rd grade, they will probably never catch up.”

What?  You mean to tell me they’ll be taking English in 9th grade and not understand the words on a page?  How can this be?

It’s nice to think that somebody or something along the way – a teacher with a little extra time, a special education program, a paraeducator, summer school – will give them that extra lift they need to comprehend all the material that will be coming at them down the line: an extra hour here, a few sentences read out loud there, perhaps a supplemental homework assignment.

But such is not the case.  Learning how to read takes focused, consistent, one-on-one, face-to-face time from a dedicated, patient, competent reader.  That’s right: someone who can sit there, listen to a student make mistakes, and correct them.  A hundred times over.  It’s not rocket science.  But it is meticulous, time-consuming, and takes weeks and months, not days.  As much taxpayer money as we spend on education in this county, educators alone cannot pull this off for every single student.

So, no, they won’t just ‘catch up’ through osmosis.  That’s why it’s so important to get them reading by 3rd grade.  Because the time and place for this sort of focus in future years is hard to find.

OK, so they can’t read.  There are still a thousand jobs out there that don’t necessitate literacy, right?  They’ll make it, right?

I wouldn’t be so sure.  According to the Annie E. Casey report “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” children who are not reading at a proficient level by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school before graduating. Students growing up in low-income neighborhoods who cannot read with proficiency are six times more likely to leave high school without a degree.

Those with the lowest literacy scores are 16.5 times more likely to have received public financial aid relative to those in the highest literacy group. They are also more likely to be in the lowest measured wage group, working full-time but earning less than $300 per week.”

The perpetuation of illiteracy leads to “heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health and higher rates of incarceration,” according to McKinsey & Company’s The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.

The correlation between illiteracy and low self-esteem has also been demonstrated.    Madeline, an appealing 8-year old at the Lab School in Washington, D.C., remembered what it was like before she was given intensive help with reading:

“I just couldn’t read the words that were in the books we had to read. I always felt left out. And a lot of the mornings when it was time to get up and go to school, I kept saying, ‘No, no. I don’t want to go.'”

And the social and economic impact for the community?  Low levels of literacy cost the U.S. an estimated $225 billion in workforce productivity losses, crime, and unemployment-related loss of tax revenue, according to ProLiteracy.

I’m not saying illiteracy dooms a child to poverty, crime, and joblessness for the rest of their life.  But it makes them pretty predisposed to one or more.

Many low-income  and struggling parents lack the resources to provide that “meticulous, time-consuming” one-on-one time with their kids.

But others in the community with some means do!

That is why we have created a literacy tutoring program starting this October: so those who are able to donate an hour or two a week can fill the gap.

Won’t you help?  And if tutoring is not your thing, there are other ways to help.  Go HERE to find out more and sign up.

MCPS cannot on their own fix the illiteracy problem.  But a community can!  Let’s do this!

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