(4th and final part our special series. Links to Parts I, II and III at the bottom of the article)
by Bill Haddad
“Mississippi is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings with an all-out effort over the past decade to get all children to read by the end of third grade and by extensive reliance on research and metrics they have shown that it is possible to raise standards even in a state ranked dead last in the country in child poverty and hunger and second highest in teen births.” – Nicholas Kristof, NY Times Columnist
The above quote was published as part of a New York Times opinion piece last May. It’s stunning in that for years, Mississippi has been a laughingstock in the education world. And yet, in a series of nationwide tests better known as NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), Mississippi moved from near the bottom to the middle for most of the exams-and near the top when adjusted for demographics. Among just the children in poverty, Mississippi fourth graders now are tied for best performers in the nation in NAEP reading tests and rank second in math.
The point was driven home in an October 2023 Boston Globe article, which reported that poor children learning to read are better off going to school in Florida or Mississippi than Massachusetts, as test results show them “performing better on a national fourth grade reading exam than their MA counterparts since 2019.”
Over the past six years I have spoken to, met with, and reached out via email or phone to many people in the Lowell government, in the school department, other non-profit, etc. In addition, I have attended dozens of community organizations’ annual meetings to talk to the leaders in Lowell to enlist their support to address this issue. Regrettably, I have been unable to convince anyone to step up to the plate to take a leadership role. (I consider this a failure on my part for not being able to effectively communicate the magnitude of this issue).
I have reviewed all the agendas for both the school committee and city council for 2023 and did not find one mention or meaningful discussion of ECE. I realize that Lowell has a five-year strategic plan and that there are periodic reports made to the school committee. Although there seems to be some progress in some areas, I found it difficult to sift through the data and get a good understanding of what improvements were made in ECE.
In the September 29, 2023, report, it referenced the 2023 MCAS Results and Accountability report. A couple of takeaways from the state data included the following comments:
- There is still significant ground to make up to reach pre-pandemic achievement levels in some areas.
- LPS has significant ground to recover for most grades in all tested subjects.
I listen to WCAP most mornings. They have the city manager, mayor, school superintendent, city councilors and school committee members on every month. Never once did I hear any substantive discussion about ECE.
I continually hear the word transparency thrown around a lot by government officials and others. You would think there would be one leader in Lowell over the years that would step up and acknowledge and be transparent about the crisis in ECE. I would further argue that if one of their children or grandchildren was one to three years behind in reading skills in first or second grade they would be outraged and banging on everyone’s door to fix the problem.
If only a tenth of the time that is spent on homeless, DEI, ADUs and other issues was spent on ECE, we would have an effective comprehensive plan to address the ECE crisis. The long-term result would give many of these children a much better chance of having both a successful career and more importantly a brighter future for them and their families.
I fully recognize that this is a huge undertaking but, by no means, is it an impossible task as shown by Mississippi and other states.
I wish I could articulate a plan to do this, but I am not an educator. My entire 50-plus-working career has been in the private sector. But I do know that no matter what type of organization you are in, if you want to solve any major issue it starts at the top. I can offer my thoughts on the first few things that need to be done:
- City leaders need to be transparent and acknowledge the crisis in ECE and the long-term ramifications of not dealing with this issue.
- I hate to say it but, form a committee to develop a long term plan. It must have strong leadership that has stakeholders from Government, Education, the Business Community, the Public, and Non-Profits.
- Communicate to everyone that this is not a one- or two-year effort like the way many other issues in Lowell are handled. This is a twenty plus year commitment.
- The state’s three largest school districts, Boston, Worcester, and Springfield are in the process of a massive transformation of its literacy instruction, which will require teachers to be trained in the science of reading. Lowell does not have to re-invent the wheel.
By my count there are about 90 employees in the school Administration. I would think we could get a couple of people to be 100% dedicated to work on the details and implementation of a plan to significantly increase the number of children reading at third grade level by the time they complete third grade.
Lowell doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They could collaborate with cities that have the same problems with ECE as Lowell does. I think this would save them a lot of time and money.
Wouldn’t it be something if you were walking down Merrimack street and a bus went by with a big poster saying: READ TO SUCCEED, or if you went by the Owl diner and on the marquee it said: READ TO LEAD, or if every leader that went to any meeting or to meet with a group of parents and had a button on that said: HAVE YOU READ FOR TWENTY MINUTES TO YOUR CHILD TODAY. What would all of this say about the entire community of Lowell being involved in helping solve this problem?
I apologize if I have rambled on too much. I’ll leave you with this last thought.
I would challenge any person in a leadership position in Lowell to go to an elementary school when they are having their year-end jamboree before schools get out for the summer. Look at all the energy, enthusiasm, and happy faces of the hundreds of children in the stands and then imagine the life they will face fifteen or twenty years down the road if they cannot read at third grade level by the time they complete the third grade.
As stated earlier in this series, every day, week, month, or year that we fail to fix this problem we are condemning many of them to an uncertain and most likely difficult and tragic future.
(Bill Haddad is the Executive Director of On the Move, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping close the reading preparation and achievement gaps between children from low-income families and their middle and upper income peers)