Poverty Puts Struggling Readers in Double Jeopardy

When does a student transition from learning to read to reading to learn? Experts agree that third grade is the turning point. What’s troubling is that two-thirds of our country’s third graders aren’t reading on grade level. What’s worse is that those students are far more likely to drop out of school than skilled readers.

Students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers, according to a new study, Double Jeopardy: How Poverty & Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation.

Poverty compounds the problem: Students who have lived in poverty are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time than their more affluent peers – if they read poorly, too, the rate is six times greater than that for all proficient readers.

Black and Latino students who lived in poverty and aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are eight times more likely to drop out.

“We will never close  the achievement gap, we will never solve our dropout crisis, we will never  break the cycle of poverty that afflicts so many children if we don’t make sure  that all our students learn to read,” said Ralph Smith, executive vice  president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which commissioned the report.

School and community partnerships, like Everybody Wins, can help.

Everybody Wins, a longtime partner of the National Education Association, is a national literacy and mentoring program that builds the skills and love of reading among low-income elementary students. Everybody Wins brings volunteer mentors into schools for weekly one-on-one reading sessions.

Volunteers read aloud to the students they mentor, which research shows is the single most important activity for helping young people become successful readers. Unfortunately, students from low-income households aren’t read to as often as those from more affluent households, which is one reason they are more likely to fall behind in school.

“Literacy is a building block for success in schools,” says Everybody Wins Executive Director Olivia Mathews, who is also a former New York City elementary school teacher. “Our mentors read aloud from books that are a little more advanced than what the kids could read on their own, which helps them develop their reading skills.”

The program is working. In Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, 84 percent of students in the Everybody Wins program improved or maintained test scores during the Spring 2010 Analytical Reading Inventory Test. Forty-five-percent of students improved their Iowa Test of Basic Skills reading test scores and 63 percent of students in the program improved or maintained their daily attendance.

Mathews has found that, overwhelmingly, the kids in Everybody Wins not only do better in reading, but begin to do better in school overall. She says it’s because reading mentors check in with their students each week and ask them about school.

“The kids start feeling accountable,” she says. “This one-on-one relationship motivates the kids to do well. Their mentor might be the only person other than their teachers who ask them about how well they’re doing academically.”


NEA Priority Schools Campaign: Learn more about how partnerships can help reduce the achievement gap

NEA on Dropout Prevention