State needs to stop and take a hard look at education system

March 5, 2013 

There is a simple, yet powerful expression often used in the manufacturing industry: “Stop the line.”

Those three words signal that there is something so profoundly wrong that the problem must be addressed at that moment or else all other work would be negatively affected. This type of policy creates an environment that is committed to quality above everything else.

I think it is time we stop the line in education and create an environment that provides all kids with a foundation for success. The gaps in both opportunity to learn and achievement between middle-class white students and students of color or poverty have existed in this state far too long.

I recently introduced legislation that emphasizes the importance of a strong reading foundation early in a child’s schooling. Senate Bill 5237 would focus resources and interventions to better prepare students for the third grade, which is a pivotal point in a child’s academic development.

Up to third grade, children learn to read; after third grade, they read to learn. Research shows third-graders who cannot read at grade level only have a 20 percent chance of ever reading at grade level. When those students advance beyond the third grade, their limited reading skills cause them to struggle in other subjects such as math and science.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, students without this basic skill set are at higher risk of never receiving a high school diploma. A recent study found that students who cannot read at grade level in the third grade were four times more likely to drop out of school. Worse yet, low-income children of color were eight times more likely to drop out.

How many more kids have to drop out of school before Washington gets serious about making some overdue changes to our educational system?

Low-income and students of color make up an extremely large percentage of our state’s achievement and opportunity gap. That said, SB 5237 is not intended to single out any group, race or ethnicity. It’s also not a bill focused on failing kids. It’s about providing each child in our state with a foundation that fosters success in school and ultimately in life.

I tutored young, struggling readers for 10 years; in each case, the students were able to advance from below-average reading skills to above-average because of proactive, early interventions.

The proposed measure establishes a plan to identify struggling kids, as early as pre-school and kindergarten and begin focusing resources and interventions before the critical juncture of third grade. It gives teachers the tools and resources to help them make their students successful. And by involving parents early in the process and empowering them with training tools to use at home, they are able to actively supplement the school’s interventions.

Yes, this is going to cost our state money. However, third-grade reading is just the sort of instruction the state Supreme Court had in mind in last year’s McCleary ruling about state support for basic education.

The choice seems clear: invest money now toward improving the outcomes for these young students or spend more money paying for long-term effects such as remedial education, incarceration and economic consequences.

By doing nothing, we are virtually condemning these kids to failure. We need to stop looking at third-graders as only 8- and 9-year-old children, and start realizing that they are the future of Washington – our future workforce and leaders.

We know that the sooner time and resources are devoted to a child’s education, the better the return on Washington’s investment will be. The most important thing is for us to take action now and stop assuming (or hoping) reading deficiencies will work themselves out.

Fourteen states already have laws addressing this fundamental concern. When are we going to become a state with a stop-the-line approach when it comes to the educational future of our children?

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, represents Washington’s 25th District.

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