06/30/2011 03:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2011

It's Time to Move the Education Debate from Conversation to Action

For the past several years, there have been documentaries, numerous research reports and magazine cover stories talking about the problems with education here in America. Everyone from government officials to school administrators to political pundits has joined the debate about the decline in education and what should be done.

We know that the problems start early with two-thirds of American fourth graders who cannot read at their grade level and continues on to high school with 1.2 million students dropping out each year. Disadvantaged children come to school at least two years behind their peers in pre-reading skills. Everyone would agree that our country is in the midst of an education crisis, but now we must move beyond the discourse and do something about the problems. It's time to ask, what can I do for my community?

Together, we can help elementary school children read at their grade level and help prevent high school students from dropping out. How? You can help be part of the solution by committing to volunteer in your community. Research shows that adults working with kids of all ages--from the early years through high school--can help boost academic achievement.

Reading is linked to high school success. That's because children are learning to read for the first few years of school, but after fourth grade they're reading to learn. Without strong reading skills, they fall behind, disengage and often drop out. As a child grows, reading becomes increasingly important for understanding the world, achieving academic success and succeeding in the workforce. The foundation for reading reaches a critical juncture between kindergarten and third grade. That's when children begin to acquire the skills that enable them to find meaning in written text.

Engaging our children--meeting them where they are, in their own learning style--is critical. Connecting them with supportive adults in and out of school, can nurture their strengths and make sure help is directed where it is most needed. Reading, tutoring and mentoring plays an important role in increasing academic success and engagement in learning. Spending an hour a week reading with a first grader or tutoring a middle schooler in math, or mentoring a high school student will improve a child's life.

Reading books aloud with children every day not only builds language and pre-literacy skills, but exposes them to new ideas, builds their social/ emotional and problem solving skills and inspires them to become lifelong learners. Becoming a reading volunteer is easy to do and it can yield overwhelmingly positive results. An example of this is the Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program that provides trained literacy tutors to children age three to grade three, recruits volunteers that focus on integrating talking, reading and writing into all classroom activities. Others provide supplemental literacy skills tutoring for children in kindergarten to third grade. The Minnesota Reading Corp evaluated 1,600 pre-kindergarten children participating in the program and found that more than half of the participants scoring below average in the fall had scored at or above the target by the spring. Significant numbers of students were shown to make progress in rhyming, letter sound fluency, picture naming, alliteration and letter naming fluency.

Children and youth need more than academic supports to make it through high school successfully. They need caring adults in their lives to support and guide them through the early years. Parents are a foundational resource to their children, but other adults can provide support as well by becoming a mentor. Adult mentors can provide emo¬tional support, guidance that enhances a child's self-esteem, foster self-control and advice that many teens may be uncomfortable in seeking from their parents. Building these kinds of relationships is particularly important for at-risk youth from struggling homes or low-income neighborhoods which frequently offer few role models or posi¬tive outlets for young people.

The challenge is real and the evidence is clear--volunteers can pave the way to high school graduation by reading with preschoolers, tutoring students who need extra help and mentoring young people who need a caring adult in their lives. Volunteer reading, tutoring and mentoring initiatives - when designed with the student's needs in mind - can make a real impact on academic achievement. Now it's up to you to take the challenge, move the education debate from conversation to action and become a volunteer reader, mentor or tutor today.

Brian A. Gallagher is President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, the leadership and support organization for the network of nearly 1,800 community-based United Ways in 40 countries and territories. In 2008, United Way announced a goal to cut the number of high school dropouts in half by 2018.

On June 21, during its fourth annual Day of Action, United Way launched an initiative to recruit one million readers, tutors and mentors in education during the next three years.