Did you know that 9-year-olds are important change agents in Maine’s economy?

So says the Maine Development Foundation, which tracks fourth-grade reading levels along with many other factors that contribute to a healthy economy and general prosperity in Maine.

Why would an indicator about fourth-grade reading level be tucked into an economic report with benchmarks such as international exports, cost of energy, tax burden, and transportation infrastructure?

The foundation notes in its annual publication, Measures of Growth, that fourth-grade reading scores are a reliable indicator of early childhood development and future performance in school, college, and the workforce. Workforce readiness is a central focus of the foundation and its supporters.

Fourth grade is when that magic transition happens — when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Researchers have determined that children who do not read proficiently by the beginning of fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And we all know the limited prospects of getting a good job without a high school diploma.

But here’s the problem: Maine’s fourth-grade reading level is tagged with a red flag in Measures of Growth, meaning it is cause for concern. Maine’s scores have been essentially level since 2007 and rank last among the New England states.

There is an added factor that complicates reading proficiency — poverty. Children who have been poor for at least one year have six times the high school dropout rate of proficient readers. Poverty may be one of the biggest contributors to the plateau of Maine’s fourth-grade reading scores. The 2016 Kids Count Data Book of the Maine Children’s Alliance revealed that more children live in poverty now than before the recession, which began in 2008.

What is to be done? Reading test scores can certainly be boosted in the short term by in-school reading practice, giving homework every day, and after-school tutoring. But there are longer-term, “it takes a village” issues as well. The Annie E. Casey Foundation identified several that contribute to the development of grade-level reading.

We perhaps need to think differently about school and when it really starts. Programs targeted at 3- to 5-year-olds that improve school readiness before kindergarten are particularly important for low-income families — programs like Head Start, preschool and other early childhood education programs. Greater attention to poor school attendance and chronic absences, such as Cumberland County’s Count Me In, are showing promise. Maine is also starting to experiment more with programs that address summer learning loss, such as the Brain Gain program at Boys and Girls Clubs of Maine.

The Casey Foundation also noted that we need to look outside the schools to support parent engagement in child literacy. Helping parents create supportive home learning experiences can boost school readiness in low-income families. Maine Families Network, based in Augusta, is one effort to help parents recognize they can be teachers of their children through common home activities like play, reading, and household chores that can expand a child’s language acquisition and math skills.

Finally, larger cultural factors are at play, most certainly reflected in our poor children’s success at school — factors such as hunger, housing insecurity, and parental instability (both mental and fiscal). For example, the Kids Count Data Book stated that 1 in 3 Maine children live in households where parents lack secure employment. Stressful home environments compromise a child’s ability to arrive at school healthy and ready to learn.

Who knew that 9-year-olds were so important? Certainly all children are important but fourth-graders’ reading level is a sentinel marker for success of individual children and society as a whole. It does not bode well for our future workforce if our fourth-graders keep bumping along at barely adequate reading levels.

We’re coming up on another election. Make sure our new legislators and town officials read the Measures of Growth report. Make sure they understand the connection of fourth-grade reading levels and the economy. Make sure they understand that schools need to think outside the box when trying to improve grade-level reading. Make sure they understand the impact that poverty has on success in school. Make sure they understand the need for early childhood interventions to level the playing field for low-income families. If they understand all that, they will recognize the investments they need to make in children to ensure Maine’s future prosperity.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.


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