Up For Discussion

Nine Years Old and Stumped By Words on Paper

We’ve Experimented a Lot To Get Children To Read By Third Grade. Why Don’t We Have More to Show For It?

This year, Arizona joins 13 other states by implementing a law to hold back third-grade students who haven’t yet learned to read. Supporters of the law feel it prevents children from being educationally abandoned in fourth grade, where teachers don’t know how to teach reading and can’t provide the extra help those students need. Critics of these laws argue there’s no proof that repeating a grade helps students learn better and warn of the disproportionate impact on low-income students. They also point out that children who fail a grade are more likely to drop out of high school. But will either solution work? Perhaps a more basic question is why so many measures of student achievement have moved so little over the past few decades. In advance of a Zócalo/Arizona State University event, “Why is Arizona Failing Third Graders?”, we asked education experts to address the following question: Why, despite all the experimentation in education, have statistics on third-grade reading proficiency shown so little improvement?



Sarah Almy

Because our teachers are not adequately prepared in early reading instruction.

It’s important to note that we have improved elementary reading performance in recent years. Elementary students performed better in reading in 2012 than ever before, and the gaps separating African American and Latino students from their white peers have narrowed significantly, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But we’re still far from where we need to be when it comes to literacy. Nationwide, one-third of elementary students don’t have even basic reading skills. Among low-income students and students of color, it’s closer to half.

There are many reasons that our young students struggle with reading, ranging from an underinvestment in schools, especially those attended by low-income students, to reading standards that have historically been incoherent and, in most cases, far too low.

Another problem is the quality of the programs that prepare our teachers. Teachers are the most significant in-school factor affecting student achievement. But a recent study found that teacher prep programs are shockingly inadequate, especially when it comes to training teachers on basic literacy. Despite a large body of research on what works in early reading instruction, three out of four elementary teacher preparation programs aren’t training candidates on these methods. Newly minted teachers are told to develop their “own unique approach” to reading instruction. They often have neither the training nor experience to teach literacy to low-income students or students of color.

We can and must turn this around. The federal government, as well as states and leaders of the teaching profession, have a role to play in raising the quality of teacher preparation. Improving teacher prep will go a long way toward ensuring that all students—and especially those who need the most intensive teaching—have access to strong teachers. This is the most important thing we can do to raise achievement and close gaps in reading performance.


Sarah Almy is director of teacher quality at The Education Trust.

Carol McDonald Connor

Because learning to read is a complex task that requires thoughtful instruction.

Learning to read is the most complex task that we expect children to master. It is more complex than learning to play the piano—and the stakes are much higher. Children who do not read well are more likely to drop out of high school, become teen parents, or enter the criminal justice system. Unlike talking, we are not hard-wired to learn how to read. Reading is a human invention that co-opts parts of the brain originally designed for other tasks, like language, hearing, and perception.

That said, virtually every child can learn to read by fourth grade if provided optimal amounts and types of reading instruction. In a recent longitudinal study, we randomly assigned a group of students to receive individualized instruction from first to third grade based on their reading and vocabulary skills. Ninety-four percent of the students who received individualized instruction were reading at or above a fourth grade level by the end of third grade and many were reading above grade-level. In the control group of students who did not receive individualized instruction, 78 percent were reading at or above a fourth grade level. Now, compare that to the national average: 66 percent of third graders read at grade-level, based on recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

So why did the students in this study read at a higher level than the national average? It wasn’t because they came from more wealthy families; about 50 percent qualified for the free and reduced lunch program. Nor was this study conducted at charter schools. But there were some differences. First, the teachers changed the way they taught reading based on what research showed was likely to be more effective. Second, virtually all of the students attended high quality preschools in Florida, where pre-kindergarten is state-funded and available to all children. Third, teachers used valid and reliable assessments and technology to guide their planning and instruction. The study was successful because researchers, teachers, and school leaders worked together. With increased funding for rigorous research from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, and other funders, school-research partnerships like this one can flourish and continue to improve outcomes for our students.


Carol McDonald Connor is a professor of psychology and senior learning scientist at the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University, and a distinguished research associate with the Florida Center for Reading Research. She received the PECASE award for her literacy research and is a co-author of Improving Literacy in America.

Susan J. Paik

Because children don’t always enter kindergarten with necessary social and emotional skills.

Learning to read requires cognitive skills, as well as effort, perseverance, and patience. There is much to be said for paying attention, getting along with others, controlling one’s emotions, setting positive goals, and completing tasks. Research shows that children with strong social and emotional skills—so-called “soft skills”—perform much better in school.

Researchers who have studied the Perry Preschool Project of the 1960s agree that children need to learn soft skills as early as possible—even before they begin formal schooling. In the landmark Perry experiment, low-income preschoolers were randomly assigned to one of two control groups: a treatment group that received early childhood education and another group that did not. After 40 years, the study found that the preschoolers who learned soft skills before starting kindergarten were better adjusted and generally had healthier relationships; as adults, they were more educated and likely to be employed, and led more productive lives.

The development of socio-emotional skills in the early years is essential. This is especially true for students who are dealing with risk factors in their homes, schools, or neighborhoods, including family instability, poverty, poorly resourced schools, and limited access to quality teachers.

Sixty percent of children enter school with cognitive skills, but just 40 percent have the necessary social-emotional skills to succeed in kindergarten, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Children who are unprepared socially and emotionally will have a harder time learning academic subjects. By the third or fourth grade, a child’s academic trajectory has already been established.

Research has shown that behavioral and emotional problems can be prevented in home and school contexts. Early intervention can help children to become more successful readers and achieve academic success.


Susan J. Paik, PhD is an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students (Springer, 2007).

Tyrone Howard

Because teachers don’t make reading culturally relevant to their diverse students.

A major part of the problem has to do with how teachers are prepared and the structures in which they are required to teach reading. A one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction simply does not work for many students. Today’s learners are linguistically, culturally, and socially diverse. Many school districts have adopted scripted curriculum to teach reading that stifles learning, creativity, and autonomy. Transforming the dismal reading statistics requires more innovative approaches and an understanding of students’ sociocultural knowledge, in order to access how they think and learn. Students come from rich and stimulating environments that are literate-rich, where they often show high degrees of literacy (e.g., music, social media, and television). Teacher education must help novice teachers develop culturally relevant approaches to teaching reading that allow them to access what they know, see, and do with regularity.

Second, we need to ensure that our teachers have an authentic belief in children’s ability to learn. The sad truth is that too many teachers have deficit-based views of children, particularly low-income children, English language learners, and students of color. Teacher education programs need an equity-based focus that emphasizes early childhood development, cultural context, and students’ strengths, and not merely their shortcomings. One example of where these approaches to preparing teaching is happening is the UCLA Teacher Education Program, which has an explicit focus on social justice and is attentive to the social and cultural context of teaching and learning. Until we see more programs like this one, reading scores will continue to lag and far too many students will pay the steep price of our failure to adequately teach them.


Tyrone Howard is a professor of education at UCLA. Professor Howard is the faculty director of Center X and the Director of the UCLA Black Male Institute.

Lindsay Wheeler DeFrancisco

Because quality early education is not accessible to all children.

Third grade is often cited as a critical juncture for students as they navigate the transition from “learning to read” (kindergarten to second grade) to “reading to learn” (third and fourth grades). This transition can be a big leap for a student who starts school and is already behind—which is too often the case for students who face additional challenges associated with poverty. According to a recent review of research by Stanford University, children from low-income communities score more than two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school at age 5.

Early childhood education is essential to academic success in third grade and beyond. Research shows that low-income children who attend quality early education programs are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and be employed. Yet Arizona ranked second to last in the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds who attend preschool, according to the annual Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book. Approximately two out of three children in Arizona don’t attend preschool at all.

Building a strong pipeline of early childhood educators in high-needs communities is an important first step to ensuring that all of our students have access to fundamental learning opportunities at a young age. That’s why Teach For America-Phoenix is a proud partner with Head Start programs across the metro area, including Maricopa County Head Start. Early childhood education programs provide students who are most in need with an academic footing to become lifelong learners.


Lindsay Wheeler DeFrancisco is the executive director of Teach For America-Phoenix, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty.