Third-grader Elizabeth Hooser, left, reads aloud as her teacher, Sarah Perry, right, evaluates her skills Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, at Van Buren Elementary School in Janesville, Wis. Improving third-grade reading is one of the top priorities embedded in the Five Promises approved by the Janesville School Board in August 2017. The promise for "student and school success" includes "90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level."
JANESVILLE — The moment children open their eyes, they begin learning what they'll need for the third-grade reading test.
Before their vision is completely focused, before they can grasp a rattle, and before they can sleep through the night, they are putting down the foundation crucial to their success as 8-year-old third-graders.
And those third-grade reading scores mean everything, school officials say, because after third grade, students are not learning to read — they are reading to learn.
Children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate on time or to drop out of school, The Janesville Gazette reported.
In the Janesville School District, nearly half of third-graders cannot read at grade level, a situation Superintendent Steve Pophal considers a human rights issue.
Improving third-grade reading is one of the top priorities embedded in the Five Promises approved by the Janesville School Board in August 2017. The promise for "student and school success" includes "90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level."
Pophal said third-grade reading is the key to success for all the other promises.
It also might be the most complicated and difficult goal.
To succeed, the district has to go beyond the school walls and beyond the boundaries of the school year.
At the end of the 2016-17 school year, 43 percent of Janesville School District second-graders could read at grade level. By the end of the 2017-18 school year, those same students had finished third grade, and 56 percent could read at grade level.
"People might think that means that half of the students in third grade can't pick up a third-grade-level book and read it," said Allison Degraaf, district director of learning and innovation.
In most cases, they can, but literacy means more than reading, Degraaf said. The state's third-grade English Language Arts Exam requires students to find information in stories, identify themes, compare and contrast texts, and decipher implied meanings.
On a recent morning, students in Van Buren Elementary School's combined second- and third-grade classroom were working on as text-to-text comparisons versus text-to-real world comparisons.
They are well past the age of letter recognition and phonics.
They are also far in advance of previous generations.
A 2015 study published in the American Educational Research Journal looked at how the cognitive demands of reading text books changed from 1910 to 2000. It found that the complexity of third-grade reading text books declined in the early part of the century, leveled off mid-century but has "notably increased since the 1970s, particularly for the third grade."
Van Buren Elementary School Principal Stephanie Pajerski has seen the changes, too.
"I've been an educator for 24 years," Pajerski said. "This is about a level above what used to be taught in second grade. But the kids can do it."
That's true: Science has shown that kids are capable of such learning if they are given the right foundation starting at birth.
Lilly King is a good example. Lilly, 7 ("I'll be 8 in March"), started second grade by writing a story about dolphins.
More recently, she wrote a story about a toilet that ate everything, including small children. It was a suspenseful read: Readers are introduced to the child-eating toilet in the first lines, but no one is devoured until the last chapter.
It was gross and funny — just what Lilly was going for.
"I wanted my story to be like Goosebumps," Lilly said.
Goosebumps is a series of children's books scary and gross with intermittent bits of humor to break things up. Educators would say Lilly was using advanced literacy skills: making comparisons between texts, using plot devices and injecting the unexpected for effect.
In another area of the combined classroom, second-grader Aiden McIntyre was working with teacher Lisa Zimmerman on fluency while reading a text about ice skating with relative ease. When asked what he likes to read, he replied, "graphic novels."
At another table, third-grade student Elizabeth Hooser read through a nonfiction work about polar bears. She twice struggled with the word "environment" but nailed it on the third try.
"That 'ah-ha' moment in reading doesn't always arrive at the same time for students," Pajerski said.
Van Buren has an additional period every day that's devoted to reading. Younger children who can read at higher grade levels work with older kids. Older kids who are struggling are assigned to "coach" younger ones.
"By the end of third grade, students should have the foundational part of reading down really well and be able to focus more on vocabulary and comprehension," Degraaf said.
Here's the catch: Schools can schedule all the additional reading time they want, add extra teachers and offer tutoring after school, but none of it matters unless the district addresses what goes on at home in the four or five years before children get to school.
The emotional and academic skills kids need to succeed start the moment a baby is born.
It starts with baby connecting to parent.
Deborah McNelis of Brain Insights, a company founded to to raise awareness of early brain development in newborns, infants and toddlers, described the connection in neurological terms: ". . . Your child will make trillions of initial connections in the first five years."
Pophal put it this way: "That bond should get formed when a child is young, while all this (the brain connections) is going on. And when that does happen, that tends to set that child up to be emotionally healthy later on. And when it doesn't happen, those children are set up to be a statistic around depression and anxiety."
McNelis developed a series of flash cards to demonstrate for parents how closely children's emotional and intellectual needs are connected.
Here's a sample from the flash card collection "Love Your Baby: Making connections in the first year":
— Gently feel, rub and caress my hand while feeding me, always hold me during feedings. Look lovingly into my eyes. My brain wasn't fully developed when I was born. Loving interaction is what I need most to help it grow best.
— Loving me calms me: Realize that loving me does NOT spoil me. Comforting me when I need you helps me learn to trust that you will take care of my needs. I will be calmer as my brain learns I can expect you to take care of me.
— My language development will be based on the amount of direct language I hear in the first three years. Television and video are not good ways for me to learn languages.
Those tips might seem obvious to middle-class families where parents duplicate the care they were given or are engaged in learning best parenting practices.
In economically disadvantaged homes, parents might not have access to good child care and might not have good parenting models.
By the time they are 3 years old, children from economically disadvantaged homes have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts, according to studies.
"For a child that is in a home that is a print-rich environment, for the child that's being read to, the child that goes to the grocery store with Mom or Dad and the parents are saying to them, 'Oh, look, those boxes of Cheerios are a gold color and there are four of them on the shelf' — that's what's contributing to those kids hitting those (language) benchmarks," Pophal said.
Here's another difference: Before they reach kindergarten, kids from middle- and upper-class families spend between of 1,000 to 1,500 hours sitting in their parents' laps listening to them read, Degraaf said. For kids from economically disadvantaged homes, that number is about 25 hours.
As a result of differences in care and access to literacy materials, children from low-income homes come to school less emotionally and academically prepared than their peers from economically advantaged homes.
That gap is difficult to bridge.
Even if low-income children catch up over the course of the school year, middle-income children are more likely to have learning opportunities over the summer that help keep them on grade level or beyond. Many studies show that by the time children are in third grade, the academic gap between students from the two socioeconomic groups has expanded exponentially.
Wisconsin's third-grade English language arts test is a brutal reflection of those realities.
As poverty increases, test scores go down. In Wisconsin school districts where less than 10 percent of students live in poverty, the average English language arts score is 8.6 out of 10. In districts where 10 percent to 19 percent of students live in poverty, the average score drops to 7.8.
With each 10 percentage points of increasing poverty, the Wisconsin test scores go down: 7.1. 6.8, 6.4, 6.2, 5.7, 4.6, 3.4, 3.2.
The state average overall is 6.3. In the 2017-18 school year, the Janesville School District's poverty rate was 46.3, and its students scored an average of 7.2, which is above the 6.4 average for districts with poverty rates between 40 and 49.9.
Poverty is why the district will not reach its third-grade reading goals unless it addresses early childhood issues, district officials said.
Shortly after the district came up with its five promises, it started the Janesville Early Literacy Task Force. Its motto is "Read, Talk and Play Every Day."
The task force has secured grants from the United Way to become a part of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. The library gets a free book each month to children who sign up.
Now, the task force is raising money for its next project: Providing every new Janesville parent a bag of materials that includes two books, a bib, a rattle, information about a app they can download to track their baby's developmental stages and a set of McNeils' flashcards "Love Your Baby: Making connections in the first year."
The task force has worked with SSM Health St. Mary's and Mercyhealth System. They've agreed to use the materials in the book bags to help train new parents. Along with information about how to bathe their babies, parents will learn how to provide for the emotional and intellectual health of their children.
There is no money available for the project, and it cannot be funded with tax dollars. The bags and their contents cost about $30 each. Pophal has been fundraising, talking to local service groups and businesses about the issue.
Pophal acknowledged the payoff for such work won't occur for another eight to 10 years. But for him, it's worth it.
On a flyer advertising the task force's work, Pophal makes his case: "Early literacy is the human rights issues of our time. Every child, regardless of their economic status, race or social standing deserves an equal opportunity to read.
"If not here, where? If not now, when?"
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization devoted to the free market economy, says business needs to get involved in early childhood education.
In a pamphlet called "Leading The Way: A Guide for Business Engagement in Early Education," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Katherine B. Stevens writes, "Children are continuously learning from the moment they are born — where ever they are and from whomever they are with — meaning that the commonly made distinction between 'care' and 'education' in early childhood is false."
The pamphlet then outlines the case for business engagement and includes "next steps" business can take.
Caitlin Codella, senior director of policy and programs at the foundation's Center for Education and Workforce, acknowledged that the U.S. Chamber might seem like an "unlikely advocate" for such an issue.
"We talk about it in terms of a workforce issue," Codella said. "But what the public might not understand is that businesses are already dealing with this every single day."
For businesses, it's about both the workforce of today and tomorrow.
"Certainly, workforce development is an issue we need to solve today," Codella said. "But we're doing nothing to solve tomorrow's problem if we're not thinking about the work we need to do across the entire (educational) pipeline."
Studies show that investments in early childhood education translate to higher wages later in life, more effective public schools, improved personal and public health, less crime and more educated workers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The return of investment in early childhood education can be as high as $16 for every dollar spent, according to the chamber.