"While a country receives a good return on investment in education at all levels from nursery school and kindergarten through college, the research reveals that the returns are highest from the early years of schooling when children are first learning to read. . . . The early years set the stage for later learning. Without the ability to read, excellence in high school and beyond is unattainable."
Richard C. Anderson, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, and Ian A. G. Wilkinson, Becoming a Nation of Readers: the Report of the Commission on Reading (Champaign-Urbana, IL:Center for the Study of Reading, 1985),1

This country, as a matter of policy, invests between $40,000-$70,000 in a free public education for each child in this country.

The Economics of Reading

We continue to do so because this investment assures our long-term achievement of 3 major social policy goals:

  • Individual economic self-sufficiency for our citizens
  • The perpetuation of our democratic ideals
  • Individual self-realization

These 3 objectives form a self-perpetuating upward spiral that generate the national funding, democratic stability, and individual commitment to provide these benefits to the next generation.

Our first step in this investment has always been to teach children to read, because 85% or more of our curriculum is thereafter delivered by reading. Reading is the most fundamental access skill. It is more basic than any content area like history, social studies, or science. It is even more basic than math. Students with initial aptitude in math will fall behind if they cannot read their math textbooks.

We do fairly well for 62% of our students. They can read within one half year of grade level by the end of third grade, have easy access to the printed page, and move through our school systems smoothly. However, for the 12% of our students who enter fourth grade reading at a low third grade level (third grade first month, for example) and the 25% of our students who enter fourth grade reading on a first and second grade level, our 3 policy goals are seldom fully realized.

We fail this group, shutting them out from our national goals, because a fourth grader reading at a first and second grade level understands less than one-third to one-half of his or her printed curriculum. Without immediate, direct, and effective intervention, this group falls so far behind by the end of third grade that 73% will never catch up. Each year, the differential in learning based on inability to read widens, separating these children from their grade level peers by a still wider margin.

This graph shows only entering third graders. Out of 100 students entering third grade, 14 of them still read at a kindergarten level, 15 at a first-grade level, and 3 of them at a seventh or eighth grade level.

Most policy makers mentally picture 85-90% of our students reading within a few months of grade level. The picture is simply not accurate. Unless your jurisdiction's scores average above the 70th percentile, this range of scores is what you will find when you walk into any third grade. Third graders read on 8 different grade levels. 25% of them are 18 months behind by month 24 of their school career.

In almost every other part of our society where certain actions result in identifiable high-risk long-term consequences, we create accountability systems. Highway safety is an example. So is child abuse, toxic waste disposal, and the practice of medicine and law. Because of the consequences of speed and driving while intoxicated, we as a society designate condition-sensitive standards and create measurement devices that assess behavior by these standards. We then include in that accountability system most of the other elements which appear in the superintendent/school board section. Those elements include changing the driving environment, reallocating resources, and involving the community. These elements are also included in the model legislation.

Part of our current reading problem can be cured simply by creating a K-3 reading skill continuum, setting clear standards of expected student performance along that continuum at the end of kindergarten, first, second and third grade, assessing to determine where each student is, and providing teachers, parents, and the community with that information. Shockingly, it is rare for even elementary teachers to have this information about their students.

When given this information, teachers begin to realign time and materials to reach the standard. Significant gains can be made within the individual classroom, but assuring that at least 90% of third graders read at or above grade level will require far deeper change in parenting practices, in school curriculum, in teacher preparation, and instructional delivery than most legislators or newspaper publishers realize.

But the benefits are worth it. Newspaper publishers lose an average of $38,000 in lifetime advertising revenue for each student in their community who enters the fourth grade reading at a first and second grade level. Law enforcement is beginning to realize that 78% of juvenile crime is committed by high school dropouts. But these dropouts can be predicted with 70% accuracy by third grade, based on reading ability, GPA, IQ, and prior retention. What determines GPA and retention at third grade? Reading ability. The majority of our social problems have a major link to low literacy levels.