One of the most important social justice goals in Cambridge is reducing our carbon footprint. Another is that all children in our public schools learn to read fluently by the end of the third grade. This is when students are expected to switch from learning to read to reading to learn. Educational research shows that it is difficult for students to catch up if their reading skills are weak going into fourth grade.
In high-income towns such as Winchester, Concord and Carlisle, 80 percent to 90 percent of third-graders score proficient on the MCAS reading test. In Cambridge, where almost half of our students are from low-income households, only 65 percent of all students score proficient. This means that almost one-third of our students are not making enough progress from pre-kindergarten to third grade to be prepared for the higher level work that begins in fourth grade. If we want all our students to be academically successful in middle school and high school, we need to invest in early childhood education and the elementary grades.
Obviously, we need to expand early childhood education options in Cambridge so all children can afford to attend a high quality pre-kindergarten program. Three additional strategies for increasing reading achievement supported by what the U.S. Department of Education considers to be “gold standard” research are: reducing kindergarten to third-grade class sizes, providing daily one-to-one tutoring to struggling readers, and teaching phonics and phonological awareness, the metalinguistic ability to hear discrete sounds within words. Other strategies supported by research include beginning formal study of another language in the elementary grades, which increases metalinguistic abilities, having full-time schoolwide social workers who work with all families and the school community, and providing rich art and music programs.
Cambridge has committed to being a Net Zero city, investing millions of extra dollars in our municipal buildings to reduce carbon emissions. We need also to commit to being a “Net Zero Reading Failure” city. One of Cambridge’s greatest social justice achievements could be ensuring that all students, regardless of family income, learn to read fluently by the end of third grade.
Emily Dexter is an educational researcher and first-term member of the School Committee.