3rd Grade Literacy

I’ve been involved in a few discussions lately about the importance of 3rd grade literacy, or more specifically, what happens to kids that aren’t literate in 3rd grade.

My principal related an anecdote about being an administrator in a school at one time and being contacted by a research firm regarding his 3rd grade literacy rate.  They were trying to predict the future prison needs for the area, and were using literacy rates in 3rd grade as an indicator.

In 2011 the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a study that found that students who don’t read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers.

Apparently there are rafts of research that show a strong correlation between literacy in the third grade and a host of other negative outcomes later in life.

It seems that we have tackled this problem as “If we can just get the 3rd graders to read well, everything else will take care of itself.”  I have an issue with this approach.  As any beginning statistics student will tell you, “CORRELATION is not CAUSATION.”  We have assumed that illiteracy in the 3rd grade CAUSES of all of the negative things that come after, and that if we can just get them to read well by 3rd grade it will cure all their ails.   There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this is the case.

Now, I don’t mean to belittle the importance of literacy, or to imply that if we can improve literacy rates that things won’t get better for these students, because I think it probably will, but I think we need to proceed with caution here, and we also need to consider some other lurking variables (such as poverty, neglect, abuse, alcoholic parents, etc.) when talking about how to “fix” these children.

I spent a lot of years (and a lot of money) taking fish oil supplements trying to get my HDL (the good) cholesterol up where it was supposed to be.  Much research was done that showed that people with higher levels of HDL have a much lower incidence of heart disease and heart attacks, so everyone was gleefully taking supplements trying to jack up their HDL so as to reduce their cardiac risk.  Recently a study was published that followed people like me that had, shall we say, artificially elevated their HDL’s, and it turns out that people who elevated their HDL with supplements had the same rate of heart disease and heart attacks that people with lower levels of HDL did.  In other words, elevating your HDL with vitamins did nothing to improve your health.

You see, what is likely is that both higher levels of HDL and the corresponding rates of heart disease are determined by some other factor that we have not yet discovered or identified, and both high HDL and low rates of heart disease are symptoms of some other, larger, syndrome.  Simply treating one of the symptoms does not cure the disease.

I’m afraid that what’s going to end up happening is that we’re going to put all our eggs into this literacy basket and its going to turn out that both illiteracy in the 3rd grade and the host of other negative things that come after are just symptoms of a larger syndrome (probably poverty), and simply addressing one of the symptoms is not going to turn out to be the panacea that we hope it will.  I think that children who are illiterate in the 3rd grade probably have by this time been imbued with a number of qualities and characteristics that are going to leave them at risk for all the negative things that happen afterwards.

I think that this problem, like many of our other problems in public education, is going to require that we as a society tackle the thorny and complex problem of poverty in our country.