Reading & Literacy

Reading Instruction ‘Keeps Parents Up at Night': Advocates in Wis., Calif. Push for Changes

By Sarah Schwartz — February 19, 2020 4 min read
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As schools apply more scrutiny to the methods and materials they use to teach early reading, educators and parents in some states have started to launch new advocacy efforts—trying to pressure states and districts to adopt research-backed approaches to teacher training and evaluating materials.

Some states have started to propose sweeping changes to how reading is taught. In general, these mandates have required that teachers know how to deliver explicit, systematic instruction in phonics, and that curriculum is aligned to evidence-based approaches to teaching young children how to decipher print.

Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, for example, have all required teacher training or curriculum vetting. And earlier this month, the Tennessee department of education proposed new legislation that would dictate K-2 reading curricula and diagnostic assessments, as well as require all current and future K-3 teachers to get trained in evidence-based early reading instruction.

Advocates in other states are hoping to see similar changes.

Last week in Wisconsin, a group of administrators, teachers, and community members issued a “call to action” to the state department of education last week, citing the state’s large achievement gap between black and white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

While the new group, Wisconsin CARE, doesn’t want districts to face new mandates, it is calling for more resources and support—such as universal access to training and coaching for teachers. The group also proposed the development of new state-level leadership positions around reading, and more frequent data reporting on reading-related outcomes.

In California, the Oakland REACH, a grassroots parent advocacy group, joined with the Oakland NAACP to develop a Literacy for All initiative, which calls on the district’s public schools to “commit to the research-proven way of teaching kids to read.” The school board voted to support the plan earlier this month.

Both the Wisconsin and California groups have framed reading instruction as a social justice issue.

Literacy for All is “led by the parents most impacted by failing schools,” said Lakisha Young, the co-founder and executive director of the Oakland REACH, at the board meeting.

“Our work comes from our families. And again and again, we are hearing that the thing that keeps parents up at night is their children’s ability to read. They know if they do not make sure that their children can read, there is a potential prison bunk waiting for them,” she said.

In a press conference last week, the Wisconsin CARE group said that while all students can struggle with reading, not receiving evidence-based instruction could have greater consequences for some students over others.

“The future for children from low-income homes depends more on their schools than children who have access to other resources,” said John Humphries, the superintendent in Thorp, Wis., schools, and a member of WI-CARE. “Poverty is not a valid or acceptable excuse for failing to teach children to read.”

‘This Needs More Than Lip Service’

At Wisconsin’s annual education convention last month, Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor said that there was a need for explicit phonics instruction in early literacy lessons.

“We have spent a significant amount of time analyzing the reading data, looking at the research on reading, and examining the instructional materials being used and the alignment with state standards. We are making changes,” she said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But members of Wisconsin CARE don’t think that these plans are specific enough. “We were concerned that an opportunity to make a real difference would be lost if people didn’t step up and say, ‘This needs more than lip service,’” said Humphries, in an interview with Education Week.

The group is calling for a new cabinet-level position at the state education department, an assistant superintendent for “Reading Science Implementation.” It also wants the department to bring together an implementation task force and a scientific advisory board with at least five researchers.

Wisconsin’s education department says that it already has a position dedicated to reading. Currently, the assistant superintendent in the division of academic excellence leads the state’s reading work and a specific team, said Chris Bucher, a spokesman for the department, in an email to Education Week.

“They also do a lot of work on high-quality instructional materials and related professional learning needs, focusing on standards-aligned instruction. The cabinet-level position is also charged with reviewing our teacher preparation programs,” Bucher said.

But Humphries said that bringing in experts with a background in the research to consult on curriculum and instruction decisions is critical. He’s concerned that, in response to calls for more explicit instruction in foundational skills, more curriculum companies will add phonics supplements to their existing materials—without addressing any of the other ways their materials might not be aligned to the evidence base.

It’s easy to “slap a label” on an old product claiming that it now covers new skills, Humphries said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.