Reading & Literacy

Applying the ‘Science of Reading': 3 State Leaders on Putting Policy Into Practice

By Sarah Schwartz — February 22, 2024 4 min read
Katie Jenner, Indiana Secretary of Education, speaks during a presentation of the proposed state spending plan during an announcement in Indianapolis on Jan. 4, 2023.
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Dozens of states have passed new laws or launched initiatives to mandate that schools adopt an evidence-based approach to reading instruction. But on their own they won’t lead automatically to changes in the classroom, experts say.

Shifting practice relies on the difficult, decidedly unglamorous work of implementation—ensuring that schools have a roadmap for enacting change and the resources to make it happen.

“This requires a sustained effort over time, and an ongoing commitment and capacity to maintain the infrastructure needed to support this work,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, the CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in a virtual panel discussion on state progress on reading initiatives on Feb. 20.

Three state leaders joined Miller to describe their multifaceted approaches to reading improvement: offering new training, guiding curriculum selection and adoption, and collaborating with colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction, according to an Education Week analysis. Most of them took effect in the last five years as the “science of reading” movement gained national attention.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

Still, analyses of these laws have found that they don’t always offer the implementation support needed to change school systems on a broad scale. In some states, ambitious timelines and unfunded mandates have left school leaders and teachers scrambling to train educators and figure out how to shift entrenched practices.

“One thing that we have learned very quickly is that while this is urgent for Indiana, urgent for our country to make sure we are doing a better job of leading, you have to be very aware that you can’t eat the elephant all at once,” said Katie Jenner, Indiana’s secretary of education, during the panel. “You have to be strategic.”

Identifying funding sources

Funding to support the work underpins any large-scale instructional shift. State leaders at CCSSO’s event discussed how they used federal COVID-relief funds to meet some of their goals.

Rhode Island used ESSER dollars to fund reading instructional coaches and assessments to measure student progress, said Angélica Infante-Green, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

Though teachers have until 2025 to complete training in evidence-based practices, rolling out these assessments gave schools a sense of students’ current needs, she said. “When we saw everybody’s data, school data, disaggregated data, there was even more of an impetus to move faster,” said Infante-Green.

Also this week, CCSSO released a report documenting states’ investments in improving reading instruction, using the 10 percent of ESSER funds set aside for states. Forty-four states are using part of the funds to support literacy instruction, with 32 specifically addressing the science of reading.

Other state leaders highlighted partnerships with charitable organizations.

“With federal money going away, our philanthropy community is major as states start to think about the scaling of this,” said Jenner.

Indiana used $26 million in ESSER state set-aside funds to support reading initiatives, but the state department of education also partnered with the Lilly Endowment, an Indiana-based foundation that funds work in community development, education, and Christian groups. The organization pledged $60 million for teacher training and $25 million to support educator preparation programs in teaching science of reading-aligned methods, according to CCSSO.

Measuring students’ reading achievement

Tracking progress toward goals was a priority for state leaders who spoke during the panel.

In Indiana, the state’s department of education has created a public-facing data visualization tool that identifies the percentage of students able to read by the end of 3rd grade by district. This “heat map” provides a guide for state officials for where more support is needed, Jenner said.

The state also tracks which state resources districts are and aren’t using, she added.

Assessing efforts against student data is the most important piece of sustaining reading improvements, said Shannon Trejo, the deputy commissioner of the office of school programs at the Texas Education Agency.

“We can all put together a wonderful professional development plan, and we can select high quality materials, but unless we’re monitoring and really paying attention to the student outcomes in a way that show us what the leading indicators are, it’s hard to come back and refine those practices in a way that actually impacts students in the long run,” she said.

Infante-Green, in Rhode Island, also talked about the importance of monitoring implementation.

“The important piece for us is to not just set things up and walk away from it,” she said.

The state published a list of approved high-quality curricula in English/language arts. Now, Infante-Green said, officials are trying to figure out how those materials are being used in classrooms.

“We all know that once that door closes … we like to tweak things a little bit,” she said. “Are we using the curriculum with fidelity?”

Rhode Island’s education department has fielded an anonymous survey to ask schools about how, and how often, these resources are used.

“Because it’s anonymous, I think that we will get as much information as possible—and where we also have to strengthen what we’re doing with the districts, and overall our messaging too,” Infante-Green said. “Because if we see teachers deviating, then we need to strengthen our message on how this is very correlated to the science of reading.”


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