Hot! Those who read well at 15 succeed

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions/Editorial – There’s no greater predictor of a child’s future educational success than reading proficiency
Published on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010.  Last updated on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010

Read, read, read. Teachers and parents have spent lifetimes encouraging, cajoling and demanding that children spend more time reading. Now we know why.

This week saw the release of a report from the OECD, Pathways to Success: How knowledge and skills at age 15 shape future lives in Canada. Its most revealing observation is that there’s no greater predictor of a child’s future educational success than reading proficiency in high school.

The study’s design is, in itself, worthy of note. It combines the results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests from 2000 – in which 30,000 15-year old students in Canada wrote standardized global tests in reading, math and sciences – with follow-up progress surveys by Statistics Canada every two years. This provides a unique window on the movement of these students, 21 years old in the latest survey, through university, college and work or unemployment. Canada is the first OECD country to produce this sort of data set for its youth.

Of course it’s what the study tells us about successful students that really matters. With a country’s economic success intricately tied to higher education, determining what student characteristics are most closely tied to progress in postsecondary schooling is a major policy issue. The report provides some of the answers.

Endowed characteristics have always been strongly linked to university attendance, and the OECD’s work confirms this. Students whose parents attended university are nearly five times more likely to be attending university at 21 than students whose parents did not. Parental income over $100,000 is also strongly predictive of postsecondary education. As is being female.

And yet the most important determinants are not preordained. The OECD reveals that time spent studying is more important than one’s parents or gender. While homework says little about success in earlier grades, the high schooler who spends eight hours a week studying is five times more likely to reach university than a student who does none.

But by far the most important factor of all is reading proficiency. Students who scored in PISA’s top category for reading skills were an astounding 20 times more likely to be in university than their peers with poor reading skills. Those in the second and third highest levels for reading still showed very strong attainment levels. Reading matters, even for students in sciences and math.

These results clearly confirm the necessity of a basic education focused on foundational skills. They also bolster the egalitarian credentials of Canada’s education system, as learned traits, such as reading and studying, overwhelm inherited factors, such as parental income. And finally, it means your mother was right when she said you should read more. But of course you knew that already.

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