Third-grade reading skills, poverty, and high school graduation

Sociology professor Donald Hernandez has an interesting paper on how third grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation rates.

The bottom-line: both a child’s third grade reading skills and whether a child’s family experiences poverty have large effects on high school graduation rates.

Here are some of the starkest results:

*** For children who are “proficient readers” in 3rd grade,  and who come from families that never experienced poverty from grade 2 to grade 11, only 2% fail to graduate from high school by age 19.

*** For children who are NOT “proficient readers” in 3rd grade, and who come from “non-poor” families, the percentage not graduating from high school jumps from 2% to 9%. Even for children from non-poor families, early reading proficiency matters.

*** For proficient 3rd grade readers whose families did experience poverty, the percentage not graduating from high school jumps from 2% (for non-poor families) to 11%. Even for proficient readers, family poverty status matters quite a bit to educational outcomes.

*** But reading proficiency matters even more to the poor. For non-proficient 3rd-grade readers whose families experienced poverty, the percentage not graduating from high school is 26%, far above the 11% for children from “poverty experience” families who were proficient readers in 3rd grade.

We know from previous research by Greg Duncan and his colleagues that adult outcomes depend more on family income status when the child was 5 or less than on family income status when the child was ages 6 to 15. The stresses on a child from family poverty (e.g., frequent moves) appear to matter most when the child is younger.

Therefore, improving adult outcomes for children can be accomplished both by boosting their parents’ incomes, and by educational interventions, such as high-quality early childhood programs, that can boost early educational achievement.  Either strategy can work separately. But the policies work even better together.

The political appeal of educational interventions such as early childhood programs is that there is broader political support for helping young children. Helping their parents is more politically controversial.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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