Policymakers can help teachers focus on reading

Test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show concerning academic performance in reading and declines in reading proficiency among students.

These reading proficiency challenges are showing up among older students despite them taking more rigorous courses because their reading challenges were evident when they were 8th graders and even 4th graders.

According to experts and a growing body of research, a scientifically-based literacy program is the most effective way to improve literacy and reduce the achievement gap. But inconsistency in how teachers are prepared to teach reading, and a prioritization of other areas, adds to the weeds that prevent elementary school teachers from teaching reading at the early age when developing literacy matters most, shared Margaret Goldberg, a California first grade teacher and founder of the Right to Read Project.

“I hear that my primary job is to meet the social and emotional needs of my students, or it’s to have strong classroom management, or unpack my implicit bias. It’s to make sure that they have rich art experiences, or do exploratory learning. I’m told a thousand different things that I’m supposed to focus on,” she explained. “I think if we gave teachers permission to focus on teaching reading well, and gave them the supports that they need, we could actually get somewhere with this problem.”

“In other words, schools and teachers need a permission structure to focus on early childhood literacy,” writes Robert Pondiscio with the Fordham Institute. Policymakers can help create and enforce this and learn from other states who have made literacy more of a priority than others.

Take Mississippi, for example. In the Center’s recent education report, national test results show that Mississippi students of color outperform many students of color in other states (including Minnesota’s), their academic progress is steadily improving (compared to Minnesota’s stagnant or in decline progress), and the state is getting these results with far less spending per pupil. Why? Because it has focused its dollars on instruction and literacy programs and making sure its teachers understand and are trained in the science of reading. The state is also not afraid to retain students in the third grade who score at the two lowest levels on state reading assessments. Pondiscio adds:

A 2016 Mississippi law requires elementary education candidates to pass “a rigorous test of scientifically research-based reading instruction and intervention.” This puts the onus on the state’s ed schools to ensure teacher candidates know and can implement effective instructional practices to teach reading.

Equally critical was the decision to deploy literacy coaches, who work for the state, not schools or districts.

Similar to Mississippi, other states also focus on the importance of the science of reading.

Arkansas’s 2017 “Right to Read” Act requires K–6 teachers, K–12 special educators, and reading specialists to obtain a “proficiency credential” on the science of reading.  Tennessee requires teacher prep programs to align their programs with sound literacy practices.

Because the majority of a state’s teachers are trained and certified in the states in which they work, Pondiscio continues, “this gives state policymakers a prodigious amount of leverage both to insist that colleges of education stress the science of reading in training early elementary educators, and to ensure that state certification reflects candidates’ ability to implement it.”

In Minnesota, efforts to improve prioritization of early reading literacy have been made at the legislature, but unfortunately haven’t made it through. Student success in subsequent grades and even outside of the classroom hinges on early literacy. Shifts in what’s prioritized during the school day are needed, and scientifically-sound reading instruction is a must.