American students’ reading scores on national tests have remained mostly stagnant for two decades — but there’s hope that consensus around the best way to teach reading, and new work spurred by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), can make a real difference, one longtime literacy advocate said.
“The information has been with us for decades, but for the first time all of us are in this room, seriously considering acting on the information,” said Louisa Moats, a literacy expert and author of the LETRS professional development tool. “I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic.”
Moats and other education researchers, advocates and 13 state chiefs, gathered in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 23 for a day-long summit on literacy convened by CCSSO, specifically to try to identify what systemic barriers are preventing teachers and administrators from improving literacy skills for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations and students performing below grade level.
This is the first step in what will be ongoing work at CCSSO on literacy, eventually culminating in a policy brief of actions states can take to improve literacy skills for students and exploring how to help states make these actions a reality.
The need is drastic: Average reading scores for fourth and eighth graders on the National Assessment of Education Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, have been largely flat since 1992, said James “Lynn” Woodworth, commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics. But more concerning, the achievement gap is widening, as the highest-performing students are doing slightly better, while the lowest performing, those in the bottom 10 percent, have scores that are “dropping fairly dramatically,” he added.
Journalist Emily Hanford, who has produced three podcasts on dyslexia, why students aren’t being taught the best method to learn to read, and how a flawed reading theory grew to prominence, addressed how research has shown time and again what works in teaching reading, but isn’t always reaching the classroom.
The conversations at the summit generally focused on three subjects: teacher preparation, high-quality instructional materials and professional learning, and pre-K-3.
On teacher preparation programs, state chiefs can use their authority over higher education accreditation and teacher certification to encourage teacher prep programs to teach the science of reading, said David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Work on this issue truly must be a partnership between colleges of education and state departments, said Emily Solari, a literacy expert at the University of Virginia who has worked on the issue with the Virginia Department of Education.
As disputes over the best way to teach reading are long ingrained in academia, there may not be a huge crowd of professors who believe in teaching phonics, but they exist in every department, she told chiefs.
“Seeking out the people within your states is a really good first step. It may truly be one person, one or two or three, but you have to find them,” Solari added.
On curriculum, chiefs and other panelists discussed equity issues, including the need to help smaller, less wealthy districts find, purchase and use high-quality materials, when they may not have the financial or staff resources to do so.
“We’re not trying to supersede local decision-making,” said Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright. “But when you talk to teachers or principals, they’ll tell you, ‘We need resources, we need good materials, we need lesson plans.’”
The discussion of quality curriculum can’t happen in a box, chiefs said. Teacher evaluations, student assessment, professional development and teacher preparation also have to be part of the conversation, Tennessee Commissioner Penny Schwinn said.
“It can’t just be about literacy, and then evidence-based, high-quality materials over here, and then assessment over here,” she added.
Chiefs also may have blunter instruments at their disposal when promoting high-quality materials.
The Arkansas Department of Education, which beginning next school year must sign off on all K-2 literacy curriculum, will not approve any that doesn’t align to the science of reading, and will reject programs that have visual cueing or other strategies, said Johnny Key, commissioner of education in the state.
“We think in the years to come, the science of reading is going to seep into the whole culture of education in Arkansas,” Key said.
Chiefs also discussed other topics and raised issues for further conversation, including adaptations that may be needed for older students who didn’t get proper reading instruction, how to define “high-quality” materials as it relates to the science of reading, and the need to later discuss adult illiteracy.
This is not the end of CCSSO’s work in this area, said CCSSO Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller.
“It is utterly our moral obligation to do something about it,” she said. “We will galvanize the energy and the collective action we have in this room to move this forward.”
CCSSO is collecting research, resources and general comments at www.ccsso.org/literacysummit. See further coverage of the event in Education Week and The 74.
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