A surmountable challenge

According to a recent study supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade is four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than a child who can.

We have long known that it's difficult for a child to catch up once he or she falls behind. But now we have research linking third-grade reading skills, poverty and high school graduation.

Hunter College sociology professor Donald Hernandez, who conducted the research, examined results for nearly 4,000 children born between 1979 and 1989, and confirmed that third grade reading proficiency can predict high school graduation.

Third grade is a critical juncture, where children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Our weakest readers — those kids who do not have even basic reading skills by that point — are about six times more likely than proficient readers to drop out or fail to finish high school on time. If those same students live in poverty, the odds against finishing high school are even worse.

Although the study's findings are disturbing, they illuminate the focal point for intervention that needs to happen right now. But first we have to acknowledge that students, teachers, parents and public officials alone can't fix this. This problem belongs to us all, and it will take all of us to solve it.

That's the message of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a coalition of foundations, civic, military and private-sector leaders — including Target and the Annie E. Casey Foundation — working around the country to start a movement that will finally move the needle on the alarmingly low rates of early-grade reading proficiency among low-income students.

According to the results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 70 percent of fourth graders scored below "proficient" in reading. Among low-income students, 83 percent failed to reach proficiency. For African-American and Latino students, it was 85 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

In response, the Campaign has set a goal of increasing reading proficiency by 50 percent in selected cities and states in the next decade to demonstrate the way forward. It will work within the education, civic, and public-policy arenas to help cities and states deliver on three core assurances needed to achieve this goal, which are:

- Quality teaching of the whole child for every child in every setting every day, whether they are at home, in child care, in pre-K or in the classroom.

- Locally-owned community solutions to make sure kids start school ready to learn, attend school every day and maintain or accelerate their learning over the summer months.

- A rational, outcomes-based system of supports and services for children from birth through third grade to replace the current tangled web of eligibility rules, funding streams and programs.

American businesses must get involved, too. At Target, we give 5 percent of our income to local communities, which by 2015 will equate to more than $1 billon. A significant portion of this money is aimed at putting more kids on the path to graduation by focusing on reading proficiency. This isn't an exercise in altruism — Target depends on today's third graders to be tomorrow's workforce and our future leaders.

The scale of the challenge at hand is enormous. We need to forge new partnerships and align our resources to meet this challenge head-on.

Eliminating the achievement gap, reversing the dropout crisis and eradicating childhood poverty — these are solutions to big problems. But the challenge is not bigger than all of us, working together.

Laysha Ward is president of community relations for Target Corporation and president of the Target Foundation. Ralph Smith is executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.