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Ed. Sec. to Literacy Funders: Help 'Our Babies' Catch Up

The United States has failed to prepare its youngest children for academic success in a "coordinated, strategic way," and as a result, far too many are behind in the reading skills that are pivotal to their future success, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a gathering of literacy funders this morning.

Speaking to the inaugural gathering of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading here in Washington, Duncan said he doesn't need to see any more studies to convince him of the importance of strong early learning and consistent school attendance, or of the setback students experience by not going to school all summer long. These are the priorities of the campaign, a group of 70 philanthropies and other organizations that aim to put a higher profile on the importance of having all children read proficiently by 3rd grade. Key to that goal are grappling with summer learning loss, chronic absenteeism, and gaps in early learning.

To ensure students are capable and competitive, he said, the country has to "get out of the catch-up business," whether it be at the university, high school, or middle school level. "If we want to get out of the remediation business," he said, "we have to get our babies off to a good start."

He noted that some kids come to kindergarten reading fluently, while others "don't know the front of the book from the back of the book." Those sorts of gaps play out for years to come, he said, putting too many students at a disadvantage.

"If we could level the playing field, we could have our babies ready to learn by 3rd grade and we could really start talking about every child going on to college," Duncan said.

Monitoring and responding to chronic absenteeism are key, he said. "We know in pre-K and kindergarten who the kids most at risk are," he said. They're the ones missing 25 to 30 days a year. And "if we don't intervene, those are our future dropouts."

Summer learning loss must be tackled as well, said Duncan, who has called in the past for rethinking the school calendar. Students "come back further behind in the fall than they were when they left. Are we going to do something different about that, or continue to function on an agrarian calendar when children no longer need to work the fields?"

Literacy hasn't been a particularly high-profile issue for Duncan's ed department, and funding for literacy currently has a big question mark hovering over it as budget conversations swirl on Capitol Hill. But Duncan made it clear that he sees reading in the birth-through-8 years as a crucial underpinning to a goal that has consumed a large swath of the administration's rhetoric on education: college and career readiness.

"I would love to hear what we can do to be a good partner" in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, he told the funders. He urged them to share their ideas about what the department should do to "drive the conversation... drive changes in behavior, district interventions, systemic strategies."

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