- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Poor and black D.C. third-graders recently tested worse in reading than they did five years earlier, according to a new study by D.C. Action for Children.

In addition, reading proficiency for all D.C. third-graders remained stagnant over that period, the children’s advocacy group reported in its study “Trends in Third Grade Reading Proficiency.”

The findings come despite the District’s high per-pupil spending and efforts to boost education and literacy throughout the nation’s capital.

“District leaders must reexamine how resources are allocated and prioritized starting at birth,” the report says. “A growing body of research tells us that achieving proficiency in reading by the end of third grade is one of the best predictors of a student’s later academic success.”

D.C. Action for Children found a significant decline in reading scores for poor and black third-graders. It also found that poor third-graders at schools with high concentrations of poverty scored significantly worse in reading than poor students at wealthier schools.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did not respond to emails seeking comment Wednesday. Both recently returned from Cuba, where they hailed the communist-run island’s claims of 99 percent literacy among its people.

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D.C. Council member David Grosso, who heads the Education Committee, said his panel has focused on supporting programs that ensure that children are exposed to books at an early age.

“To address reading proficiency, the Committee on Education has identified literacy interventions early on in the child’s development as an evidence-based solution,” said Mr. Grosso, at-large independent.

Last year, the committee helped put $1.6 million into a reading program that targets third-graders and put 26 full-time tutors in schools. Mr. Grosso said they have helped more than 500 D.C. students.

In its analysis, the advocacy group used scores from the District’s annual Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS), the citywide test that measures academic proficiency, and focused on the period between 2007 and 2014. The data were provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

The report notes that about 66 percent of the District’s roughly 47,000 students are eligible for free and reduced price meals, a common proxy measure for poverty.

“Schools with a high percentage of the student body living in poverty have higher teacher turnover rates and less qualified teachers, on average, than schools with a larger percentage of middle or upper-class students,” the report states.

Reading is more difficult to grasp than a subject like math because it’s based as much on environment as on the child’s ability to learn, according to Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution.

“The challenge with respect to reading is that it cannibalizes everything a child knows about the world and language, much of which is acquired at home and outside of school, whereas math knowledge is largely school-based,” Mr. Whitehurst said.

Though the District invests significant resources in early childhood education and literacy programs and has one of the highest per-student spending in the country, that’s not enough to stem declining literacy rates, the report says.

According to the education think tank Thomas Fordham Institute, the District spends about $18,000 per student in public school. That compares to an average of about $12,500 is spent per student across the metropolitan region, including Maryland and Virginia.

Nationwide, the District lags behind only New York, which spends about $19,818 per-student, and Alaska, which spends about $18,175, according to census data released in June.

The District’s higher rate of per-pupil spending occurs for a variety of reasons, including higher starting teacher salaries, the Thomas Fordham Institute says.

A first-year D.C. teacher with a bachelor’s degree earned a starting salary of $51,539 in the 2011-2012 school year. A comparable teacher in Fairfax County earned about $7,100 less, and a similar teacher in Prince George’s County earned $6,740 less, according to the institute.

“Leaders of urban districts may choose to offer competitive salaries to offset the relative challenge of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers,” the institute says. “Another reason salaries in cities are high is because urban areas tend to have stronger labor unions, which are better able to negotiate with district leaders for higher pay.”

But more spending doesn’t mean a better education, D.C. Action for Children says.

“As past research indicates, it is not necessarily how much is spent on education, but how it is spent,” the report says.

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