The first time I read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, the Kentucky-born author's novel took me from the halls of Glasgow High School and into the inner circle of famed fictional governor Willie Stark.
By learning to love reading from a young age, I developed the skills needed to comprehend, analyze, and discuss books like All the King's Men by the time I entered high school. Such books opened my world to previously unimagined adventures and opportunities.
Every child in Kentucky deserves the same opportunity. Research shows that students who read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to graduate high school. They are also more likely to be successful in other subjects, do well in the workforce and lead healthier and more prosperous lives.
As a Kentuckian, I take great pride in the strides our state has made to ensure more of its students reach early grade-level reading proficiency. Since 1998, the number of Kentucky's fourth-grade and eighth-grade students proficient in reading has risen 8 percent, placing our state's performance well above the national average.
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As reading proficiency has improved, so has our students' performance across the academic spectrum. Over the past decade, nearly twice as many of our fourth-graders have become proficient in math, as have 10 percent more of our eighth-graders.
At Teach For America, our rural teachers across eastern Kentucky have seen firsthand that our state's progress in early reading proficiency stems from Kentucky's commitment to a legacy of literacy.
In collaboration with our partners, we recently launched the Kentucky Literacy Campaign, which asks supporters to visit YourSchoolsYourCall.org and vote on the one book they believe all Kentuckians should read.
When the campaign concludes on March 31, Teach For America will purchase classroom sets of the winning book for over 750 students in Eastern Kentucky. Over 2,250 supporters including Wildcats' Head Coach John Calipari, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto have participated. Kentuckian Wendell Berry's A Place on Earth is in a close race with To Kill a Mockingbird for the No. 1 spot.
This widespread support is among many demonstrations of Kentucky's dedication to advancing literacy, including First Lady Jane Beshear's Kentucky Literacy Celebration and Feed the Mind — Kentucky. Such efforts are helping bring the commonwealth together to celebrate early reading and to work toward literacy success for all Kentuckians.
Additionally, research-based initiatives like The Kentucky Reading Project are equipping educators with the professional development necessary to improve their students' early reading proficiency. In the last 15 years, KRP has trained over 3,100 early childhood teachers who reach more than 550,000 elementary students — an average 81 percent of whom reach reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.
At kitchen tables and in classrooms, from community centers to the state Capitol, early reading proficiency is a Kentucky priority. We know there is still work to be done. Literacy will be foundational to our changing economy in which 65 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education by the end of the decade.
Kentucky's commitment to early reading proficiency has shown we can meet these new demands for our children. I look forward to working with my home state toward the day when every child enters high school able to comprehend, analyze and discuss books like All the King's Men and benefits from the opportunities that stem from early reading proficiency.