WASHINGTON — Governors and education chiefs from nine states said Tuesday that a focus on early-childhood education, the changing dynamic of families and supporting low-income students could help improve literacy across the country.

Discussing the nation's literacy crisis at a Washington Post policy forum, the panel of political and education leaders said states need to do more to help children learn to read by the third grade, a key educational milestone at which children shift to "reading to learn." Those who can't read proficiently by third grade are more likely to struggle in later grades.

But the work that would ensure that students can read well by the third grade must start long before a child steps into a classroom, panel members said.

"You can't fix third-grade literacy by focusing only on third-graders," said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, D.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, R, gave a provocative answer when asked why the country has slipped in educational achievement. He said he knew he would face criticism for answering honestly but did so anyway: "You want me to tell the truth? I think both parents started working. The mom is in the workplace. It's not a bad thing."

Bryant then explained that families "in today's society" are "challenged" balancing work and home life when both parents have jobs.


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Sherece West-Scantlebury, the president and chief executive of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving education in Arkansas and a sponsor of the event, said educators need to adjust to changing family structures in the United States because the traditional idea of stay-at-home mothers preparing children for school is increasingly a thing of the past.

"The family has changed, and we still have an antiquated way of teaching in schools," she said.

Addressing the needs of children who come from low-income families also was a key theme among educators at the forum. Low-income students are more likely to be absent from class and drop out.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which was a sponsor of Tuesday's event, about 83 percent of fourth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches in 2009 read below grade level, compared with 55 percent of students who were not eligible for subsidized meals. Such subsidies are a common measure of poverty.

State education chiefs from Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington discussed strategies they've been using to help more students with reading, with many turning to social-services programs.

They said they also have changed how they communicate with parents, as more children come from households with two parents who work full-time jobs or don't speak English. In Georgia, some teachers hand-deliver report cards to parents. In South Carolina, teachers call parents regularly, not just when students are in trouble.

Markell, who was on a panel with Bryant and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, R,, said his state recently started dedicating public funds to pre-kindergarten to help improve literacy rates and education. President Barack Obama has made early-childhood education a priority for his second term.

A growing number of states have been holding students back from fourth grade if they can't read proficiently in third grade, in large part because students who don't master the basics of reading by then struggle when they encounter subjects such as science and history in fourth grade. Students who aren't reading at grade level before starting fourth grade are four times as likely to drop out of school, according to research from the Casey Foundation.