Why the Kellogg Foundation Obsesses Over Third Grade Reading Scores

Someone at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been paying attention to the latest research on child literacy. They know that “about 31 percent of poor African-American students and 33 percent of poor Hispanic students who did not hit the third-grade proficiency mark failed to graduate" from high school. 

While those dropout rates are greater than those for White students with poor reading skills, the research suggests that gaps in graduation disappear when students master reading by the end of third grade and “are not living in poverty.”

That last bit (you know, about the poverty) is a pretty big caveat in the research but that is not stopping funders like Kellogg from investing in strategies to ensure that every third grader walks out of that grade with strong reading skills. The smart money in education philanthropy gets that helping poor kids succeed isn't an either/or game: schools need to do a better job even as we also go after "root causes."

Kellogg specifically just gave $650,000 to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to improve students’ early reading proficiency in six LA elementary schools through training their teachers in methods to implement and sustain standards-driven instructional strategies. The goal for this grant is to reach 140 K-3 teachers to accelerate gains in literacy for 3,000 students. Kellogg has also given about $1 million to similar early literacy efforts in Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota.

Bridging back to the research, there are many indications that Kellogg’s approach is a promising one. The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy is bullish on such programs—like the one that Kellogg is supporting at the Partnership for LA Schools—that train teachers by enhancing their literacy techniques and provide books and coaching to help them implement strategies in their classrooms. The Children’s Literacy Initiative at UPenn conducted several randomized control trials in which approximately one-third of students reached key literacy benchmarks when less than $600 (per student) was invested in teacher training.

The minor confounding variable called “poverty” notwithstanding, Kellogg and peer funders investing in early childhood literacy such as the Rainin Foundation are hoping that educators with strong skills in teaching literacy can help poor kids develop a solid foundation that will help them surmount this singular obstacle in their (hopefully) upwardly mobile lives. It seems like they are on the right track.

As for poverty, Kellogg puts big money into programs in that area, too. When it comes to improving student achievement, philanthropy has to fight a two-front war.