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January 9, 2017

The Moral Imperative to Act Is Crystallized by the Knowledge That Action Can Make A Difference: Part II

Editor’s Note: As managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading since 2010, Ralph Smith has been forging consensus around ensuring that children reach the critical developmental milestone of reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

The Campaign is grounded in research highlighting the alarming numbers of children who are not reading proficiently by third grade and the long-term consequences for society. The following post is from the forward to the recent publication, Towards Bigger Outcomes: Taking on the Health Determinants of Early School Success


“Doubling down,” “lifting up” and “prioritizing” are more recipe than menu — especially so regarding attention to parent success and healthy child development. Parents and caregivers are the first diagnosticians, first responders, and first home health care providers. Moreover, their own health status and challenges are deeply intertwined with those of their children.

The myriad efforts of Grade-Level Reading (GLR) communities to find, own and implement viable solutions to the readiness, attendance and summer learning challenges have illuminated how dependent all three are on the presence or absence of certain health conditions. The dependence is so great that the health markers are literally as well as figuratively “determinants” of early learning, early literacy and school success, especially in the early grades. Foreshadowed by the extensive literature on the social determinants of health, the community-level efforts have exposed the contours of a vicious cycle. Subpar school outcomes are key predictors of low socioeconomic status. The resulting social conditions account for much of the most consequential health disparities. The deleterious effects of a number of these health disparities on virtually all aspects of early learning predict the diminished outcomes that complete and perpetuate the cycle.

Common sense, reflective practice, the wisdom of lived experience and the research literature offer support for our bet that the prospects for improving student outcomes in the early grades can be enhanced by improving healthy child development in the early years. We now understand more deeply that the double-bottom-line effects of this aspect of our work — honing in the health issues that are most closely correlated with early school success — could prove a powerful intervention for one of the vicious cycles that sustain and nourish the inter-generational poverty we hope to disrupt.

This could be a big deal with far-reaching implications. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to recall again the “no silver bullet” admonition. Our initiatives to “lift up” both parents and health will succeed best and contribute most when nesting within a strategic context that is intentional about fostering the connectivity and synergies needed for sustainable scale.

Insofar as the health determinants of early school success are concerned, we see at least three major contributors to bigger outcomes and sustainable scale:

  • Silo-busting “common enterprise networks” that create and reflect the vertical and horizontal alignment needed for joint planning, data sharing and “real time” feedback loops.
  • Innovative fiscal tools to ensure access to predictable funding and the blending, braiding and leveraging of public resources, private investment and philanthropic dollars for impact.
  • Durable leaders and institutions bringing dollars, local knowledge, earned credibility, influence and intellectual capital along with a commitment to serve as anchors and stewards of long-term change.

The focus on “bigger outcomes” will bring additional strategic priorities

  • Advocating for data-driven, technology-enhanced early warning and response systems that will allow timely identification of and intervention with children who are veering off the pathways leading to readiness, attendance and summer learning.
  • Unbundling readiness, attendance, and summer learning to allow more granular attention to the drivers of improved outcomes to accelerate scaling success by bundling proven and promising programs to enhance impact.
  • Extending the collective impact framework to accommodate and support solutions design and development processes that capture the stored value of the GLR Network’s distributed strengths, experience, and expertise.

In closing, it is important to note again that the single development of which we are most proud and most hopeful is that over 250 community foundations, family foundations, United Ways, public charities, corporate-giving programs and individual donors have stepped up to provide dollars, leadership, and voice to early learning, early literacy and grade-level reading initiatives in their local communities and home states. And we have emerging evidence that some of these local funders are encouraging and inspiring institutions of higher education to channel their formidable reservoirs of intellectual, human and economic capital toward confronting the challenges associated with early school success. This is a development worth watching.

Ralph Smith
Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Managing Director

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