It All Comes Back to the Reading Gap

When President Obama announced an initiative focused on young men of color, he shared a statistic that took my breath away: 86 percent of African American boys can't read proficiently in fourth grade, compared to 58 percent of white peers.

Think about that for a minute. That means only 14 percent of African-American boys read proficiently compared to 42 percent of white boys. That's a rate three times greater for white students. Three times. The numbers aren't much better for Latino boys, only 18 percent of whom are proficient readers in fourth grade, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

After the third grade, school curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. Students need to master reading by the end of third grade if they're going to navigate through the complexities of the solar system, the 13 colonies and the inevitable math question about two trains leaving at different times at different speeds.

Research shows the vast majority of the struggling readers will never catch up. These are the children who start out so far behind that they cannot catch up, who fall further behind due to poor attendance and missing too much instruction, who lose ground over the summer months and return to school in September farther behind than when they left in June. In fact, 74 percent of these kids fall off and are left behind. They become the kids skipping school, failing classes and getting suspended. As a result, struggling third grade readers are four times more likely to drop out, and the rates among black and Hispanic students are twice as high as those for white students.

For kids living in poverty, the situation is even more grim. Only 10 percent of African- American boys and 14 percent of Latino boys from low-income families are able to read by the third grade. Without high school diplomas, it becomes almost impossible for them to bootstrap their way out of poverty.

The tragedy is that by the time these kids are eight years old, we can map their way to the criminal justice system. When we talk about achievement gaps, when we talk about dropout rates, when we talk about unemployment rates, it all comes back to this early reading gap. The future of entire communities -- and ultimately, our nation's economy, which relies on high-skilled workers to continue growing -- is at stake.

So what can we do?

We can teach these children to read. It's that simple. Within three miles of your house, right now, a child needs your help, your one-on-one attention, to master the sights, sounds and magic of books.

Sure, teaching is the school's job. But the reality is most schools don't have the resources to focus on every struggling reader. This is especially true as class sizes grow in many communities. And sure, parents play a key role, reading and talking to children in the early years so that they're building strong vocabularies. But not every parent has the time or capacity to ensure their kids are reading on grade level.

That's where volunteer tutors come in. Whether it's a recent college graduate doing a year of service, a business leader volunteering at lunchtime or a retiree giving back to the community, literacy volunteers are key to solving this early reading crisis. Study after study shows that one-on-one tutoring by trained adults can significantly improve a child's chances for learning to read, particularly with such skills as decoding, word recognition and comprehension.

Learning to read is a transformative moment in the life of any child. But for one who has been struggling, it's particularly powerful. When a child begins to catch up with peers in the classroom, he or she gains confidence. Social interactions and behavior problems improve; absenteeism declines. Every child who learns to read is one less child who will head off track toward suspensions, failing grades and, eventually, dropping out. If you want to make a difference, volunteer to teach a child to read.