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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Student Literacy Rates Are Concerning. How Can We Turn This Around?

A new report highlights students’ reading challenges and requests feedback from educators.
By Rick Hess — March 25, 2024 6 min read
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The ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Bill Cassidy has represented Louisiana in the upper chamber since 2015. Cassidy recently released a much-discussed report, “Preventing a Lost Generation: Facing a Critical Moment for Students’ Literacy.” As schools struggle to address learning loss, and at a time when “the nation’s report card” finds that just 33 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading, it’s heartening to see leaders step up. Given that, I reached out to the senator to discuss his report and what he has in mind. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Senator, you’ve had a long-standing interest in literacy and dyslexia in particular. Can you talk a bit about why this issue is so important to you?

Cassidy: Literacy—the basic ability to read—is at the heart of all other learning. If students do not learn to read, they cannot read to learn new material in other subjects. There are significant societal impacts for those who cannot read, including being less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be incarcerated. Also, without a literate workforce, we as a nation cannot fill the 9 million jobs currently open or adequately staff the military, which hurts our competitiveness with other nations.

Within literacy, research shows dyslexia impacts millions of people across the country, specifically an estimated 1 in 5 Americans. Dyslexia is not about an individual’s intelligence but the need for specialized instruction and tools. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, I know how hard it can be to get your child the resources they need to meet their full potential. Unfortunately, many students are not screened for dyslexia until after they have already fallen behind, if at all. And, even after a parent finds out that their child has dyslexia, they may not be able to find or afford a school that provides the proper, tailored education.

We need to have a 21st-century approach to literacy and dyslexia based on science, including early screening and evidence-based instruction, so every child can achieve their God-given potential.

Rick: You recently issued a new report on literacy. What prompted it? And why now?

Cassidy: We are now at risk of having an entire generation of children—who were in their prime learning years during the pandemic—fail to become productive adults if reading proficiency does not improve. While many states continue to take meaningful steps to improve literacy instruction, more must be done. This report highlights this pressing issue and requests feedback from stakeholders across the nation. This feedback will be crucial to informing our efforts at the federal level so we can better support teachers, parents, students, and schools to ensure every child can read proficiently.

Rick: Your report cites a number of troubling statistics when it comes to reading. What are a few of the data points that you find most illuminating?

Cassidy: The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that two-thirds of 4th and 8th graders are unable to read proficiently. The average reading score for 4th graders is the lowest it has been in over 20 years. For 8th and 12th graders, average scores are near a 30-year low. These numbers should concern us all; they are completely unacceptable.

Rick: As you know, there’s been growing interest in science-based reading instruction. Can you share a few of the key research findings from your report and the kinds of practices or policies that you find especially promising?

Cassidy: It’s important to be clear that when we say “science of reading,” we’re discussing an evidence-based body of research. It’s not one curriculum or program and it’s not just phonics-based instruction. This body of research has identified key components necessary for students to learn how to read and write and how teachers can best implement these components into reading instruction. Specifically, the science of reading has shown that students need explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction in each of the five key pillars of literacy—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

The states implementing the science of reading approach especially well are supporting the implementation by deploying literacy coaches, updating teacher-preparation programs, and providing explicit training for current teachers in the science of reading. These states are also supporting all educators—not just reading teachers—in learning evidence-based reading practices. It is crucial that improving student literacy be an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Rick: We’ve seen a number of states launch ambitious efforts to overhaul reading instruction, including your own state of Louisiana. Which states are doing this particularly well and what can we learn from them?

Cassidy: I’m proud of the work being done in Louisiana to improve student literacy. A key to that success has been the comprehensive nature of these efforts. Louisiana is one of three states that are implementing all 18 components of what science of reading experts outline as a comprehensive literacy policy. Unsurprisingly, Louisiana had the largest gains out of all 50 states in grade reading on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

There is also the “Mississippi Miracle,” which describes that state’s enormous gains in literacy over the past decade. Mississippi achieved these results by focusing on the implementation of science-of-reading reforms. They didn’t pass a law and just hope for the best. The Mississippi department of education worked relentlessly to create clear guidelines and resources so that teachers had the necessary support and training to improve instruction. Mississippi also ensured parents were engaged and students had access to high-quality materials.

Rick: Your report offers a general call to action rather than specific prescriptions. Still, I’m curious if you have some general thoughts about what Congress should be contemplating in terms of information-gathering, oversight, or lawmaking?

Cassidy: Feedback from teachers and families, which can be sent to literacy@help.senate.gov, will be crucial in this process. I plan to share more on this front after reviewing responses to the report and workshopping ideas with stakeholders. Any policy that is considered will need to support teachers in using the science of reading and parents in understanding and identifying it. While curriculum decisions should remain the responsibility of states and districts, there are likely opportunities to strengthen how federal funds are used for literacy and to support states in tackling the more complex pieces of this puzzle.

Rick: Twenty-odd years ago, during the Bush administration, the Reading First program sought to promote research-based reading instruction. Do you look back at Reading First as a cautionary tale, a model worth reviving, or something else?

Cassidy: It’s a cautionary tale. Reading First had worthy goals aimed at aligning literacy instruction with evidence-based methods and materials. However, it was fraught with implementation issues and conflicts of interest. My hope is this report gives the education field an opportunity to reflect on all previous attempts to support literacy and offer constructive feedback to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rick: Last question: Given existing law, are there things the U.S. Department of Education could do to more effectively tackle the challenges you’ve noted? Are there particular changes to existing programs, funding streams, or rules you’d like to see the department explore?

Cassidy: This is the exact question I hope to explore with the education field as we receive responses to the report. I have already heard concerns that all is not well and that we can and must do better. This is the time to put all ideas on the table and chart a path forward collectively to improve literacy. If we do not seize this moment, the long-term implications will be dire.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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