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“Texas uses fourth grade reading scores to project the number of prison cells they’re going to need 10 years later.”
I first heard that astounding pronouncement in 1995 while co-chairing a White House task force on literacy. And though I later learned that the formula for projecting the number of jail cells was more nuanced, it was not inaccurate. Moreover, Texas wasn’t alone in using elementary school reading difficulties as a proxy for serious problems later in life. 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate; and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.
Sadly, the percentage of criminals who have reading/illiteracy problems is not surprising. What is shocking however, is how many kids are at risk of illiteracy. Today, fully 67% of American fourth-graders can’t read at the fourth-grade proficiency level; and 33% score below the basic competency level. (All these statistics are from the NAEP tests — the standardized tests given to all fourth-graders.)
There is actually a bit of good news in that statistic. When I was a member of Hillary Clinton’s Prescription for Reading Partnership task force, the competency failure rate was 40%. So a seven-point shift is significant. Much of that improvement was the result of a mandate in the No Child Left Behind legislation that required schools to use proven, research-based techniques to teach reading. And that led to a large-scale shift away from “whole language” to phonics-based methodologies.
Another significant factor was insight gained from brain research on very young children. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist – or brain researcher – to understand that babies and toddlers who receive more verbal, visual, and tactile stimulation from their parents have more brain stimulation than children who don’t. That there are long-term, positive impacts on cognitive abilities from this increased early stimulation is no surprise either. Or that lower stimulation levels have a direct impact on what is known as “pre-reading” skills and ultimately success at learning how to read.
But what is surprising is how easily early brain stimulation can be enhanced – particularly among low-income families whose kids arrive at school with the weakest pre-reading skills. And that enhancement comes simply from reading to very young children.
Twenty years ago, two doctors working in an inner-city hospital – what was then called Boston City Hospital and today is Boston Medical Center – had an “aha moment” that changed the prospects for at-risk kids. Drs. Robert Needleman and Barry Zuckerman were well-armed with the latest knowledge of brain research and stimulation. And as a primary-care pediatricians serving low-income families, they realized they had real influence with these families. The doctors’ insight was both profound and simple: if they advised the parents who brought their young children into the clinic for checkups just how important it was to read to their kids – and then gave these families children’s books for the families to keep – parents might just listen to them.
Needleman and Zuckerman knew that more than 96% of all kids from birth through age 5 saw a pediatrician at least once a year for what was known as well-child checkups. Even kids without health insurance. And more often than not, these parents took the pediatricians’ advice seriously, and really tried to comply with their recommendations for the child’s health and healthy development. By “prescribing” reading – giving the advice and an age-appropriate children’s book – the doctors really could make a difference in these kids’ chances of success.
And that is how Reach Out and Read was born.
Today, Reach Out and Read annually serves more than 3.9 million children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years of age. Some 27,000 doctors and nurses participate in the program – at hospitals, in clinics, and in doctors’ offices – in every state and at 44 U.S. military bases. And the impact — as documented by 14 peer-reviewed, published research studies – is powerful. Kids’ vocabulary, language, and pre-reading skills are far ahead of their peers’ when they reach school – typically six months ahead – simply as a result of being read to regularly.
Remarkably, the cost of the Reach Out and Read program is only about $10 per year per child – the cost of the two books each child receives annually. The doctors and nurses volunteer their time. And they raise most of the money to pay for the books. (Only about a third to a half of the book funds come from matching funds provided by the national Reach Out and Read office.) The program works because it is rooted in individual responsibility: the responsible behavior of parents who, who once they understand the importance of reading to their young children, do so. And the responsibility of doctors and nurses who understand the positive influence they have on parents; and then raise the money to pay for the books, get trained on how best to integrate the anticipatory guidance into the routine checkups, and make it happen.
Unfortunately, this remarkably effective and cost-efficient system is threatened. Six million dollars in annual funding is being threatened by politics. That’s because Reach Out and Read receives a small portion of its funding from the U.S. Department of Education – in the form of an earmark. It is not an individual Congressman’s earmark or a secret earmark, but what is known as a “national” earmark. That means that more than two hundred representatives and senators have signed an appropriations letter asking the leadership to direct the department of Education to allocate – from its already appropriated funds – money for Reach Out and Read. An identical procedure is used to fund Teach for America and Reading is Fundamental. And all three programs are now in jeopardy.
The $6 million Reach Out and Read receives from the federal government is just a small portion of the organization’s overall $30 million budget. But it is money that is effectively utilized to help leverage private, foundation, and corporate support – the very best model of the public-private partnership. Without that government funding, both the national staff and the local Reach Out and Read coalitions and sites have to spend much more time fundraising. And that is done at the expense of reaching more children and parents. (Just as a frame of reference, the Cash for Clunkers program cost $2.9 billion.)
Which brings me back to the need for prison cells. It costs approximately $47,000 per inmate per year to keep a young (and relatively healthy) inmate locked up. By saying “no national earmarks,” — earmarks that do not involve secret, incremental, or special interest funding — the Congress is making a statement and a choice. The statement sounds right: no secret projects or goodies for constituents, contributors or special interests. But there are also (probably) unintended consequences: Congress is saying it is better to pay $47,000 in 10 years to keep someone incarcerated than it is to spend $10 today for two children’s books.
No wonder Congress enjoys a 16% approval rating. It should not require a degree in brain research to understand the consequences of such choices or politics.
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