Innovation Ecosystem

A new campaign to promote reading is launched

Gov. Gina Raimondo offers a candid assessment of the state’s public education system

Courtesy of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

The analysis of the the results showing the performance of Rhode Island students of the reading and English portion of the PARCC tests, on which only a little more than a third of students statewide "met expectations." The analysis was used as a call to action at the kickoff of the grade-level reading campaign last week.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/30/15
A new partnership to promote reading proficiency in Rhode Island was launched last week, with Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and United Way of Rhode Island providing the leadership. The release of the PARCC test results and their dismal results provided a timely call to action. At the kickoff event, Gov. Gina Raimondo seemed to share her true feelings of disappointment in the fact that the public education system in Rhode Island was not working.
Why does lead poisoning of children, and its pernicious, persistent, long-term effects on educational achievement, keep getting left out the discussion about how to improve students’ education performance in Rhode Island? Similarly, when will reducing toxic stress become part of the equation? Could Brown University President Christina Paxson give her lecture about “unpacking the racial disparities of health” to the current state educational team?
Imagine if public education were deemed Rhode Island’s most important industry cluster, organized not according to investments by large companies but rather in the potential economic metrics based upon outcomes, talent, and investments in people and places. How would that change the economic equation for Rhode Island? Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, frequently invokes his belief: if Rhode Island had the best public school education and the best primary health care in the nation, people and companies would flock to Rhode Island in droves. The vision of Rhode Island as a talent hub and as a great place to live because of its willingness to invest in public education and health equity, not just health care, may be more of a game-changer than a promotional tourism campaign.

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Gina Raimondo let her hair down, so to speak, at the kickoff for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Rhode Island, held on Nov. 24 at United Way of Rhode Island headquarters on Valley Street in Olneyville.

Raimondo was talking to more than 50 community and business leaders and state officials that had assembled to help launch the new statewide campaign, with the goal of increasing the percentage of children reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

The week before the event, the results from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, had been released.

When it came to measuring what the test called students’ performance in English language arts, only about one in three – some 36 percent – met or exceeded expectations for the state standards.

“I’ve been sad and disappointed since I saw the PARCC results,” Raimondo began her remarks, in a much more pessimistic tone than usual. “If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”

“It’s not working,” she said, and then repeated the phrase, “It’s not working,” talking about the state’s public education system, sharing her assessment that the results of the test had been “awful.”

“Thirty-six percent [statewide], 18 percent in the urban areas, 12 percent for people of color,” Raimondo said. “We’re letting these kids down.”

Raimondo continued: “I’m not interested [in] pointing fingers, or to lay blame. Let’s just be real. We’ve got problems.”

The low results were not a surprise, because she said it confirmed a lot of what had been shown by other data and scores.

“I wasn’t shocked, but nonetheless, it was a real wake-up call,” she said. “Let’s not deny, let’s not blame the tests; let’s not deny the reality; let’s not be accusatory. We have our work cut out for us.”

The new campaign for grade-level reading was a good place to begin, she said, switching back to the more familiar, positive can-do tone of her administration. “[It is a good] way for us to recommit ourselves to the work of making sure that children learn to read by the third grade,” Raimondo said. “Making sure that all children in our public schools, people of color, poor people, people in the city, people in the suburbs, boys and girls alike [can reach third-grade reading levels in third grade.] That’s what this is all about.”

Raimondo pledged to put her team, her energy and her leadership behind the new reading initiative. “We’re fired up, we’re excited, we have work to do,” she said, adding, with a perfect closing note two days before Thanksgiving: “I’m thankful for you guys, and thankful for all the good work you do.”

A partnership
The new Rhode Island-based campaign, a partnership between United Way of Rhode Island, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, and the national Grade Level Reading campaign, seeks to promote proficient reading on grade level after 3rd grade.

Research has shown that children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers, according to materials provided at the event.

Ken Wagner, the R.I. Department of Education Commissioner, alluded to the fact of what he called an urban anecdote that in some states, government officials could predict the number of prison beds they would need by the number of those who could not achieve third-grade reading levels.

The key components of the campaign include: improving school readiness, reducing summer learning loss, reducing chronic absence, and ensuring high-quality literacy instruction in the early years.

The national campaign has set a goal that by 2020, a dozen states or more will increase by at least 100 percent the number of children from low-income families reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

The national campaign has also produced a 10-page document of the health determinants of early school success, including promoting healthy food choices, ensuring oral health, supporting healthy birth and infancy, ensuring early and appropriate screenings and intervention, supporting children’s healthy social and emotional development, and controlling environments and managing asthma.

The overall campaign is seen as a way to disrupt intergenerational poverty, according to the documents provided.

Offering testimony
Among those leaders offering support and testimony at the kickoff event were Melba Depena, director of the R.I. Department of Human Services, Wagner, Raimondo, and Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Also offering perspectives were Sen. Juan Pichardo and Rep. Gace Diaz. Tony Maione, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, served as emcee for the event.

A brief brain-storming exercise at the close of the kickoff event was led by Adam Greenman, the executive vice president of Community Investment at United Way. One of the suggestions voiced was the need to better involve parents in the educational process of their children, particularly with reading.

What was not discussed
Surprisingly, a number of related topics were not included in the discussion as part of the launch of the initiative.

One was the way in which elevated levels of lead in children disrupted their capabilities to read proficiently by the third grade and in later years. Removing lead from the state’s housing environment would seem to be a missing element in the strategy.

Recent research on children in Providence has demonstrated the persistent, detrimental effects of lead exposure in children on their academic achievement levels.

A second related topic missing from the discussion was the effort around building a collaborative strategy to reduce toxic stress in Rhode Island, recognizing the ways that it diminishes learning capabilities and social interactions by rewiring brain functions in children and infants.

A third related topic, mentioned but not addressed directly, was health equity – access to quality, affordable health care – and the racial disparities within the state’s health care delivery system.

In addressing the root causes of the lack of reading capability by Rhode Island students, investments in community health and healthy housing are key fundamental strategies in the equation of fixing the educational system that, as Raimondo admitted, “is not working.”

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