MARCH 31, 1997

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Opinion

Guest Column

Literacy Now: something we can all work for

literacy by Joel Pritchard, former Lt. Governor, 1989-1997, State of Washington
The citizens of the state of Washington have a strong commitment to public education. The record of the past and present shows a willingness to meet the financial needs of our schools. Fortunately, we are blessed with teachers whose dedication and competence are second to none.
   Yet most of us know someone who struggles with illiteracy--sometimes in open frustration, sometimes in silent shame. It may be an uncle who always asks "the wife" to read the newspaper headlines out loud. It may be the teenager on the camping trip who wads up the song sheet and throws it in the fire, declaring, "This is stupid." It may be a fifth-grader who refuses to bring her schoolbooks home and do her assignments.
   Senate Bill 5508, "The Reading Accountability Act of 1997," comes straight out of Washington's tradition of concern, dedication, and excellence. It pinpoints a major problem: Perhaps as many as 40 percent of Washington's third-graders are reading below grade level. Yet the third grade is the last time, for many, when the basic skills of reading--decoding letter sounds-phonics, word attack skills--receive concentrated attention. Post third-grader remediation is very expensive. And according to experts, it doesn't work very well.
   Yes, we know that every class has late bloomers, but many children will never catch up. School will grow increasingly frustrating, embarrassing, and unrewarding for them. As teenagers, they will drop out of school. The percentage of convicted criminals who earlier dropped out of high school is as high as 78 percent. We can make a greater impact over a longer period of time at less cost by teaching 90 percent of our third graders to read on a grade level than any other single thing we can do. That's a powerful educational intervention.
   The Accountability Bill sets a clear and simple goal: ninety percent of Washington's third-graders will read at or above grade level by 2002. We start now. We measure where our third-graders are now in each school, set interim goals, give each principal support in reaching these goals, and hold each principal accountable for significant, incremental improvement.
   Senate Bill 5508 is a perfect ramp up to HB 1209 and HB 1941. The mechanisms are already in place which mandate statewide testing for fourth, seventh, and tenth grades by 2002. Here's a way to get a jump-start on the process by assuring children come prepared out of the third grade.
   This isn't a partisan issue. Nobody is against teaching kids to read. In fact, everybody is for it. Illiteracy doesn't ask what our politics might be. We can't decide that our children will be Democrats or Republicans. But we can decide that they will be readers.
   The Reading Accountability Act of 1997 is a way of doing just that. Ninety percent literacy for our state's third-graders. That's a goal we can all support. That's a goal we can achieve.