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On Sept. 11, the Joint District 65 and 202 Committee discussed adopting a joint achievement goal. Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of School District 202, opened the discussion by offering a broad vision that would bring in the community. “I think there is a huge potential to look at something across the spectrum, across all grades and in my mind across the community,” he said.

He proposed that the School Boards consider adopting a reading goal. “We really do have some issues within our community about all of our children being proficient in reading. I really do believe, and I feel it’s the kingly goal, you have to be a proficient reader.” He said he did not think that either District 65 or District 202 could achieve this goal alone. 

“Could we be looking at something that is really bold and dynamic in this area that not only commits two Districts and two School Boards, but really commits to even trying to getting the community and early childhood and expert programming, because I think we can transform a lot of educational outcomes in our community. Frankly, I think if we could close the reading gap, we could change the achievement gap,” said Superintendent Witherspoon.

Members of the Joint Committee appeared ready to adopt a bold joint goal like this. Board members on the Committee asked administrators to bring back something a little more specific that the Committee could use to frame a proposed joint goal, and in turn present to the full Boards for consideration, either in January or June of next year.

We support a joint goal that commits the School Boards to work together to ensure that all students are proficient in reading. We also strongly support intentionally expanding the effort to include early childhood providers and other organizations.

Including Early Childhood Providers Is Important

 Recognizing the importance of being able to read by third grade, the District 65 School Board has adopted third-grade reading goals on numerous occasions during the last 10 years. The District’s current strategic plan, adopted in 2009, contains the goal, “Ensure, by the end of third grade, that students enrolled in the District for four continuous years are reading at grade level.” Over the years, the District has implemented many programs in an attempt to achieve a reading goal.

Despite these efforts only 48% of black students and 51% of Hispanic stu­dents are reading at grade level, using perfor­mance at the 50th percentile as the measure of grade-level performance. There has been some progress – 8 percentage points for black students and 5 points for Hispanic students since 2006 – but the results are disappointing given the effort.

This highlights the importance of making this goal a community-wide effort, and one that expressly includes early childhood providers and other organizations as partners.

Many studies point to a “word gap” that exists at first grade as being a factor in children’s reading abilities in subsequent years. One researcher estimated that “linguistically disadvantaged” children know about 5,000 words compared to “more advantaged children” who know about 20,000 words when they begin school. “Studies … have shown a substantial relationship between vocabulary size in first grade and reading comprehension later on.” See “The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning” (2010).

In addition, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) and the National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation found in a joint report that “early experiences determine whether a child’s developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” In light of continuing scientific findings in this area, NSCDC says, “The need to address significant inequalities in opportunity, beginning in the earliest years of life, is both a fundamental moral responsibility and a critical investment in our nation’s social and economic future.”

This community would benefit if Districts 65 and 202, early childhood providers and other interested organizations forged a partnership to ensure that all children are provided supportive and rich learning experiences starting at birth. We know that many early childhood providers and many other organizations are already working on and committed to this issue. We think that integrating the services would make it possible for collaborating partners to provide more efficient services and to achieve a more powerful collective impact on students and families.

College and Career Readiness

Second, we think the target proficiency level in reading should be aligned with college and career readiness, and nothing less. The ultimate purpose of our K-12 school system is to prepare our children to succeed at the next level, whether they choose to attend college or begin a career. The School Boards of District 65 and 202 should adopt goals and mea­sures of success that are consistent with this purpose.

The ACT, PLAN, and EXPLORE tests set benchmarks for college readiness for eighth- through twelfth-grades. These tests are already given to ETHS students.  In addition, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban School Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has identified cut scores on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) that indicate whether third- through eighth-graders are on track to meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.

Several members of the Joint District 65 and 202 Committee urged that the Districts agree on measures, year by year, that indicate whether students are on track to college readiness. We agree.

We recognize that many students may not go to col­lege; many may choose a different career path. A study sponsored by the ACT, though, “The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring All Students Are on Target for College Readiness before High School” (2008), concluded that in today’s world “college readiness also means career readi­ness.” To obtain a decent paying job with opportunities for career advancement “require[s] knowledge and skills comparable to those expected of the first-year college student,” says the study.

In addition, an eighth-grader’s career choices and op­portunities should not already be limited because he or she lacks essential skills or knowledge. The same goes for students in ninth, tenth, eleventh or twelfth grades. 

We support a community-wide reading goal tied to college and career readiness.