Metro

Zuckerberg, Chan donate $30 million to literacy effort

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/File 2016
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are giving $30 million to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to tackle one of the most perplexing problems in education — low literacy rates among elementary school students — officials announced Tuesday.

A cornerstone of the five-year initiative, Reach Every Reader , will be the development of a Web-based screening tool, which could be used by districts nationwide,that aims to speed up the identification of kindergartners at high risk for reading difficulty. The screening tool will attempt to determine why students are struggling and will offer interventions that teachers and families can use to help children become stronger readers.

The initiative also hopes to shift the conversation about poor literacy away from third-grade reading scores toward younger students. Officials believe early intervention can have the most profound effect on turning students into proficient readers.

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“If we wait until the third grade, that is too late. . . . You missed a huge opportunity to help them before then,” said Elizabeth City, executive director of Reach Every Reader and a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Citing various research, City noted that a student who fails to read in the first grade has a 90 percent probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75 percent probability of reading poorly in high school, which could limit their opportunities after receiving a diploma.

In Massachusetts, state officials, local school systems, and early education advocates have been raising concerns for years about low literacy rates and expressing frustration that they have been unable, for the most part, to move the needle on performance for about a decade. The latest results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, released last fall, showed that slightly less than half of third graders met or exceeded grade-level expectations in reading. In Boston, the rate was just 29 percent.

One area where state education officials have targeted for possible overhauling are the screening tools schools and preschool programs are using to identify educational and health needs of students.

“This initiative being supported by Zuckerberg and Chan is consistent with the Commonwealth’s push to get stronger indicators in the early years,” said Tom Weber, state commissioner of early education and care. “This is likely to become an asset in that effort.”

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The announcement represents the latest foray into education by Zuckerberg and Chan. For instance, Chan opened a private school last year in California for low-income students that is modeled in part after Codman Academy Charter School, which is housed in a neighborhood health center in Dorchester.

Zuckerberg also previously gave $100 million to the Newark schools, which initially received criticism for squandering the investment. But research released last fall by a Harvard University professor, Tom Kane, found the school system was able to use the money to help boost achievement notably in English, while still struggling with math.

“We are excited to support the launch of Reach Every Reader, a unique combination of cutting-edge education and neuroscience research to better understand how we can help every kid stay on track to reading on grade level by the end of third grade,” Chan said in a statement. “It’s this type of bold, innovative thinking that we believe will help build a future for everyone and enable transformative learning experiences.”

But Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she doubted the Web-based tool would have any impact on boosting literacy. She said the money could be put to better use by reducing class sizes and hiring more reading specialists and librarians.

“You can bring in a reading specialist when a child is struggling,” said Madeloni, a former high school English teacher. “You can have a lot of books in classroom that kids can pick up and be curious about. Those are the things that are essential to reading development.”

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The initiative is being launched specifically by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT’s Integrated Learning Initiative.

Through the initiative, interventions created for the classrooms will aim to foster a motivation within students to want to read and also provide them with the skills to read and write about complex texts. It will also provide training to teachers.

“Nothing is more fundamental to all aspects of education and citizenship than the power to read,” said John Gabrieli, a professor of health sciences and technology at MIT and director of the Integrated Learning Initiative, in a statement.

Jason Sachs, executive director of early childhood education for the Boston Public Schools, said the Web screening tool sounds promising. He said one area that has challenged teachers is identifying which students have reading difficulties because of neurological issues and those coming into preschool or kindergarten with a lack of exposure to reading in the home.

Adding another wrinkle is that each child’s brain develops at different rates.

“As science gets smarter, we get smarter,” Sachs said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that it was Priscilla Chan’s initiative to start a private school in California.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.