Will new reading instruction requirements strengthen Minnesota’s teacher prep programs?

According to experts and an ever-growing body of research, a scientifically based reading program is the most effective way to improve literacy. But inconsistency in how teachers are prepared to teach reading has contributed to a literacy crisis in our state and across the country. We can’t expect students to learn to read if teachers leading the instruction aren’t properly prepared and supported to do so.

In Minnesota, the Read Act was recently passed and signed into law, requiring teacher preparation programs to instruct teacher candidates in evidence-based reading instruction to try and help turn around the state’s long-term struggle of providing effective literacy instruction. Over 52 percent of Minnesota’s 3rd graders can’t read at grade level as measured by the state’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, and 4th grade reading scores on national assessments are the lowest they have been in 30 years and below the national average.

While this statewide overhaul of literacy education and what strategies and methods can be used to deliver reading instruction is a landmark investment (even though it needed to happen sooner), we must first start with holding teacher preparation programs accountable for their pivotal role in transforming how reading instruction is delivered. This responsibility largely falls on the education leaders who control teacher prep program requirements, regulations, and approvals — Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) appointed by the governor.

A recent in-depth analysis of Minnesota’s elementary teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that only 14 percent adequately address all five core components of scientifically based reading instruction — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Perhaps even more concerning, 29 percent of these teacher prep programs do not adequately address any of the five components sufficiently.

While all five components interconnect and are critical to develop strong readers, “phonemic awareness helps lay the foundation for reading” and receives the least attention across programs, according to NCTQ. In fact, nearly two out of three teacher prep programs in Minnesota fail to adequately address phonemic awareness.

Additionally, teacher prep programs are struggling to provide aspiring educators opportunities to practice applying their knowledge of the reading concepts, such as through “one-on-one tutoring with a student, administering a mock assessment to fellow teacher candidates, or conducting a lesson during a field experience,” continues NCTQ.

In fact, 71 percent of Minnesota teacher prep programs fail to give their teacher candidates any opportunity to practice teaching reading fluency. Half of Minnesota’s programs fail to give any opportunity for aspiring teachers to practice teaching phonemic awareness, three out of seven fail to give any opportunity to practice teaching vocabulary and comprehension, and over a third fail to give any opportunity to practice teaching phonics.

“While individual preparation programs can improve the outcomes for their enrolled candidates, states hold the power to institute improvements to reading instruction and teacher preparation on a statewide scale,” notes NCTQ. One such way NCTQ recommends doing this is by requiring a reading licensure test aligned with scientifically based reading instruction for any elementary teacher to earn licensure, and publish the pass rates.

Unfortunately, as my colleague Kathy Kersten has covered, PELSB dramatically and retroactively lowered passing scores on our state’s teacher licensure exams in January, intended to ensure that 95 percent of teacher candidates pass teaching exams.

And in the education omnibus bill that contains the Read Act, starting August 1 teachers seeking a Tier 4 license (which the majority of licensed Minnesota educators hold) will no longer be required to demonstrate passing scores on a basic skills exam in reading, writing, and math. The legislature also removed previous teacher prep program reporting requirements that included an annual report of the number of teacher candidates who achieved a qualifying score on a skills examination and the number who did not, and those who had not passed a content or pedagogy exam.

But we don’t have to (and shouldn’t) solely rely on the state to solve our literacy woes. Other stakeholders — teacher prep programs, school districts, and advocates of scientifically based reading instruction — can act to ensure effective literacy instruction is prioritized and becomes a reality statewide.

From teacher prep programs considering “how to modify existing courses to include more scientifically based reading instruction” and using high-quality materials that “cover the components of reading in sufficient depth” to school districts providing professional development opportunities for teachers already in the classroom who weren’t prepared in scientifically based reading instruction practices, there are exemplar resources from high-performing programs that provide Minnesota an array of promising practices to pull from to reduce the rate of reading failure.

It will take time, it will take dedication, and it won’t happen overnight. But given that we have had more than 50 years of research on effective literacy instruction, and yet have struggled to prioritize necessary changes, here’s a call to arms for courageous policy and education leaders willing to set clear expectations, measure progress, and promote accountability to help get literacy in our state closer to where it needs to be.

Opportunities for Aspiring Educators to Practice Reading Component in Teacher Preparation Programs