Loophole in DFL reading bill?

It’s no secret that Minnesota has struggled to help many students become literate — a failure that many of us sounded the alarm on years ago.

Both Republican legislators and DFL legislators have introduced plans to address literacy, citing the importance of instruction being based on the science of reading.

Science of reading instruction is in contrast to a “balanced” approach to reading instruction that arose in the 1990s, which emphasized whole language and often used a teaching strategy that research doesn’t support: the “three-cueing” system (or simply guessing the word based on clues).

There is concern that the DFL literacy bill includes a potential loophole for use of ineffective reading instruction strategies such as the three-cueing system, reported Alpha News.

During a recent committee hearing, Republicans said the bill provides schools with too much latitude to “continue doing what they’re already doing.”

The bill, for instance, would require districts to provide teachers with training “that is evidence-based or based on the science of reading.”

“I can only assume this is just a lot of outside pressure, but in your bill you have an ‘or.’ Science of reading or evidence-based,” said [Rep. Patricia] Mueller. “I see by adding that ‘or’ … that’s opening up some doors that I think should be closed.”

A parent in the Osseo Area Schools district echoed Rep. Mueller’s concern over the inclusion of the word “or” in the bill’s language, sharing with American Experiment that while she was told phonics (a key part of the science of reading framework) was included in her son’s reading curriculum, he was also taught to look at the pictures for context. “This caused him to guess rather than use phonics to sound out words and set up a problematic habit.”

Even with phonics instruction in classrooms, “it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills,” wrote Peter Goodman and shared by the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center.

Indeed, as I write here, and as professor of linguistics at Columbia University John McWhorter has written, there is “a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read.”

In 2020, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gave a handful of Minnesota elementary teacher prep programs a “D” or “F” for science of reading instruction. These included: Bemidji State University (D), Hamline University (D), Minnesota State University-Mankato (D), St. Cloud State University (D), University of Minnesota-Crookston (F), University of Minnesota-Morris (D). While the majority (67 percent) received an “A” or “B” — with most of those being private religious institutions — that still leaves nearly 1/3 (29 percent) that are not adequately preparing teacher candidates to teach reading. NCTQ’s analysis of these programs from 2016-2020 shows their performance in reading preparation, as graded by NCTQ, remained largely unchanged.

A 2022 analysis of Minnesota’s legislation/policy related to evidence-based reading instruction requirements by Education Week found the state was doing the least compared to other states and their science-based reading legislation/policy.

According to Education Week, Minnesota does not have evidence-based reading instruction requirements within teacher preparation programs, teacher certification or license renewals, or assessments, to name a few.

There should certainly be agreement that our reading statistics are staggering and that something must be done, but as a solution is pursued, it must not be one that leaves room for ineffective teaching strategies to continue.