Reading for Life: Parenting and the Achievement Gap

by Rhonda H. Lauer on June 22, 2011

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As part of the exciting series Reading for Life, Foundations’ President and CEO Rhonda H. Lauer shares her expertise and insights about grade level reading. Join Ms. Lauer as she offers key viewpoints and commentary based on her extensive experience working across the country to give our children and young people the educational opportunities they deserve.

Approximately 3 million young people in this country are graduating from high school this month. As a former teacher, principal, and school superintendent, I applaud their achievement. But, here’s the flip side: over 1 million of their peers will not graduate, more than half of them minorities. Boys dropout at a higher rate than girls.

And, as my colleague Michele Rodgers noted in her recent blog, African-American males face a double-whammy: only 47% of them will obtain a high school diploma.

Students don’t just wake up one day and decide to leave school; most dropouts exhibit early warning signs. They start failing classes, skipping school, and gradually disengaging from the school community. Why? I believe it is because many of them cannot read at grade level.

A report by the Council on the Great City Schools shows that only 12% of African-American 4th grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38% of white boys. And the seeds of illiteracy are planted early in their lives. African-American boys are more likely to have inadequate healthcare and live in poverty and single-parent households, and they are less likely to participate in early childhood programs.

Though dire, these statistics can be overcome. Byron Pitts is a perfect example of this. He is African-American. Raised in inner-city Baltimore by his mother, who was a seamstress, and his grandmother, Mr. Pitts was functionally illiterate until he was 12 years old and stuttered until he was 20. Now, he is an award-winning national correspondent for The CBS Evening News and author of the inspirational autobiography Step Out on Nothing.

How did he do it? His mom. “She understood the value of education,” he says. “She insisted that all of her kids go to college. Even though she didn’t have access to education, she still valued it.” She got him the extra help he needed to learn to read.

Clearly, schools are important, as is quality instruction; but, as Mr. Pitts’s life story reveals, what happens at home cannot be ignored. We know that three key factors put children on track to read at grade level by 3rd grade: early intervention (before kindergarten), parental support and involvement, and home and school environments that build literacy skills.

Moms and dads are children’s first and best teachers, and they need to know that. They need to know the enormous impact that their actions – even relatively simple ones – can have on a child’s ability to read. They need to understand the importance of good prenatal care, quality preschool, reading aloud, turning off the television, helping with homework. And for those families that need not just information but ongoing support, we need to provide that too.

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