Building a strong workforce pipeline begins well before students enter high school. Early literacy is a little known but key factor in ensuring student success throughout their lives.
“Research shows that 3rd-grade literacy is one of the best predictors of high school graduation and a critical indicator of a successful workforce,” says Scott Laband, President of Colorado Succeeds.Indeed, students with low literacy levels who drop out often lead a life plagued by poverty, crime, and unemployment. 70 percent of prisoners possess the two lowest levels of reading proficiency.
Clearly poor reading skills affect not just individuals but our entire community. This is why Colorado Succeeds led efforts to tackle the state’s literacy crisis beginning in 2010. Despite being one of the most highly educated states in the nation, a 2009 test known as the Nation’s Report Card showed that 60 percent of Colorado 4th graders scored below grade level in reading and Colorado had the nation’s fourth largest gap between the reading achievement of white students and Hispanic students.
These sobering statistics led Colorado Succeeds to convene a coalition of business leaders, educators, and policymakers for the 2011 “Learn to Read, Read to Learn” conference. This coalition developed bold strategies for addressing Colorado’s literacy crisis, ultimately developing one of the nation’s most innovative early literacy policies: The 2012 Colorado READ Act (Reading to Ensure Academic Development).
“Our goal in passing the Colorado READ Act is to help every child in our state become literate by the end of third grade by actively supporting struggling readers,” said former Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia. “Importantly, the Act focused on identifying students with significant reading deficiencies, engaged parents in devising reading improvement plans, and provided funding to support intervention.”
At a glance, the Colorado READ Act seeks to:
- Identify struggling readers as early as possible;
- Take action to implement comprehensive, scientifically-based reading interventions for those students; and,
- Share accountability for reading outcomes among all stakeholders – from teachers and administrators to parents and students.
The Results are In
Thanks to the work of our dedicated educators, just four years later the Colorado READ Act is delivering impressive results for kids across our state.
“As we move policy into practice, we’re thrilled to see a significant positive impact on the lives of thousands of Colorado students,” said Laband, referencing the findings from Colorado Succeeds’ 2015 report, The Colorado READ Act: An Evaluation of Implementation and Outcomes after Year One as well as more recent findings from the Colorado Department of Education.
Best of all, the READ Act is working for all subgroups of students – including at-risk students – across geographic areas, notes Pati Montgomery, a nationally-known educational researcher and co-author of Colorado Succeeds 2015 study.
“It’s clear that the schools and districts in our state that most rigorously adopted the legislation are experiencing the greatest gains,” said Montgomery.
Case in point is Denver Public School’s Cole Arts and Science Academy, where Principal Jennifer Jackson led a “reading revolution” within her school using supports from the READ Act. Cole serves a community where 90 percent of students are low-income and neighborhood gang activity is pervasive. Overcoming these challenges took creative thinking and commitment, and Jackson rose to the challenge.
“Anytime you’re rolling out something like the READ Act in a school as big as Cole you need to get people bought in,” said Jackson. Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson purchased “Revolutionary” t-shirts for her team to build a sense of mission and urgency in the school.
Jackson also invested heavily in the professional development of teachers, with support from the Colorado Department of Education.
“The READ Act gave us the gift of having experts come in, so the best people trained my teachers,” said Jackson.
Using Data to Improve Performance
A critical factor in implementing the READ Act is the use of data to improve student outcomes. All of the schools examined in the 2015 evaluation study share a strong belief in the power of data-informed decision-marking and instruction. Once again, Cole is a shining example of what this means at the school level.
“We were really transparent with data. We had data meetings and everyone owned the data,” said Jackson. “Everyone in the Cole community, from music teachers to art teachers to 5th grade teachers, were invested in the data and knew how students were doing.”
Jackson’s comprehensive strategy worked. In just one year, Cole’s illiteracy rate dropped by half. English language learners and students living in poverty experienced the most impressive growth – with illiteracy rates for both subgroups decreasing by more than 52 percent.
“It was really hard work but once the data started coming in and kids were really reading, it changed our focus as a school and it changed our teachers’ idea of success,” said Jackson.
Cole’s transformation was just one example featured in Colorado Succeeds’ year one evaluation study. The purpose of the analysis was to point out promising practices from some of our state’s most talented educators, and to inspire increased collaboration around early education statewide.
From problem identification to policy implementation, the collective effort to develop and push forward the READ Act is an incredible example of what’s possible when business, education, and government come together.
“Two years in, the numbers show that our investment in the READ Act is already paying off,” said Laband.
But data only tells part of the story. When talking to school leaders and visiting schools in various Colorado communities we see the full impact of Colorado’s reading revolution.
“The READ Act changed how teachers saw data to measure success, it changed how our scholars saw themselves because they saw their success, and it changed our community to say, ‘this is what we celebrate,’” said Jackson.
While Colorado students have made gains in early literacy since 2013, this work is far from finished and discrepancies across schools and within student subgroups remain. As the Colorado Department of Education reported in their 2016 study of the READ Act, students eligible for free or reduced lunch, the feral measure of poverty, were nearly three times more likely to be identified with an SRD than their non-eligible peers. And Latino, Black, and American Indian students are still twice as likely as their White and Asian peers to struggle with reading. As the Colorado READ Act continues to roll out in schools and districts, Colorado Succeeds will continue to monitor and support its progress.
“We won’t be satisfied until all Colorado kids receive the literacy support they need,” concludes Laband.
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