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Reading & Literacy

State Chiefs Champion ‘Science of Reading’ at Literacy Summit

By Sarah Schwartz — January 24, 2020 7 min read
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Washington, D.C.

State education chiefs urged the importance of evidence-based early reading instruction at a literacy summit held this week by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

At a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., leaders advocated for states to play a stronger role in championing science-backed instruction and translating research into practice, focusing on levers like teacher training, certification, and system-wide professional learning.

“State chiefs are uniquely positioned to address systems barriers that prevent us from doing better,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, CCSSO’s executive director.

Early reading instruction, which several chiefs in attendance called “the civil rights issue of our time,” has received renewed attention recently. This growing interest in science-based early reading instruction has lead some districts and states to rethink their practices.

The science on early reading instruction has been settled for decades. Research shows that teaching young students which letters represent which sounds, teaching systematic phonics, is the most reliable way to make sure that children learn how to read words. (Education Week has explored the science and surveyed teacher knowledge in our new series, Getting Reading Right.)

But for many states, taking a proactive role in how reading is taught would signal a big change in approach. Several chiefs discussed how instructional decisions, around reading and other subjects, have historically been left to districts.

Missouri’s literacy plan, for example, is a “soft document,” said Margie Vandeven, the state’s education commissioner. Requirements can be interpreted differently by different districts. The state needs to provide clarity, she said.

As an organization, CCSSO has a “steadfast” commitment to following the reading research, Miller said. The group plans to eventually publish a guide of policy actions that states can take to address early reading instruction.

“The information has been with us for decades, but for the first time all of us are in this room, seriously considering acting on that information. That’s a first,” said Louisa Moats, a reading researcher and developer of the LETRS program, which provides professional learning for teachers in evidence-based reading instruction, who spoke at the event.

Unified Instructional Change

State education leaders from 13 agencies attended the summit: North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Vermont, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia.

One state, Mississippi, was heralded throughout the day as a bright spot for early reading instruction. The state has raised its reading achievement outcomes, and it was the only place in the country to see an increase in 4th grade reading scores this year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In 2013, the state’s legislature passed two notable laws: The Early Learning Collaborative Act, which funded pre-K programs, and the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, a 3rd grade retention law. This second piece of legislation provided funding for teacher training.

“It was at that point that we made a conscious decision that the training they were going to get was going to be around the science of reading,” said Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education.

Mississippi started training in LETRS for teachers and also provided free professional development to any educators working with 3- and 4-year-olds. The education department also received funding for literacy coaches, which Wright hired at the state level rather than sending the money out to districts.

“I needed to be assured of controlling quality,” she said. “I did not need [the funds] pushed out to a district to have somebody say, ‘Wow, I’ve got this lousy 5th grade teacher I need to pull out of the classroom. Why don’t we pull her or him out of the classroom, make him or her the literacy coach and then hire a brand new teacher?’”

Having state control over professional learning and coaches was key to unified instructional change, Wright said.

Mississippi also took a hard look at its teacher-preparation pipeline. A 2015 study of the state’s institutes of higher education from the Barksdale Institute served as an “exposé,” highlighting the lack of instruction in evidence-based practice, said Moats.

The state has encouraged universities to change their practices, creating partnerships and inviting faculty to LETRS trainings alongside K-12 teachers. But it has also applied more direct pressure. In 2016, Mississippi started requiring all elementary teacher candidates to pass a test on scientifically based reading instruction.

Even so, said Wright, “we still have a contingency of higher ed that does not feel they have to move off the dime where the science of reading is concerned.”

The “reading wars” never really went away within schools of education, said Emily Solari, a professor of reading at the University of Virginia who spoke at the roundtable. Getting academics to change their instruction to align with evidence-based practice is “a very political and difficult task,” she said. Education Week’s Madeline Will explored the competing philosophies, and resulting confusion for teacher candidates, in a recent story.

School districts can demand that teachers have certain knowledge and skills, but it’s hard for states to know how to create that demand, said Vandeven. States can put forth recommendations for higher education, but they’re “influencing without authority,” she said.

David Steiner, the executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins School of Education, disagreed.

“Accreditation is a real tool,” he said at the summit. States can withhold accreditation from universities and alternative certification programs that can’t prove their graduates know the science of reading. They can also pressure certification test makers, like edTPA and the Praxis, to require that teacher candidates know these skills, he said.

Universities shouldn’t be appointing faculty who don’t teach evidence-aligned practices, said Steiner. “We have the equivalent of chemistry departments teaching alchemy,” he said. “In the end, there’s an ethical responsibility to act. And there’s an ethical responsibility to realize that we do have the tools.”

Coherence a ‘Fundamental Problem’

Even if states do reevaluate their accreditation or certification processes, it can be hard to know how to measure these systems.

“We have a data problem, in Massachusetts at least, where I don’t actually know what many of our educator-preparation programs are doing in terms of reading,” said Heather Peske, the senior associate commissioner at the state department of education. “And I don’t know that we have the resources and the funds to do the kind of study that Barksdale did.”

The state wants to revisit its certification process with reading science in mind, she said, but isn’t sure which data points to look at.

Evaluating and recommending materials presented similar challenges.

Several state chiefs discussed efforts to get districts on board with high-quality, standards-aligned English/language arts curricula. But they questioned whether tools existed that could evaluate foundational skills programs against the science base, rather than standards.

Nebraska, for example, has started publicly cataloging the curricula that districts across the state are using. The data collection has demonstrated links between high-quality materials and student achievement, and has sparked conversations about how districts make these choices, said Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s education commissioner.

But the state isn’t yet considering the science of reading in its evaluations of instructional materials, he said. “We would like to say that we are, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The Common Core State Standards are a “north star” for early reading abilities, said Moats: They can outline what a child in K-2 should be able to do. But they don’t “provide anybody with a roadmap of how a student gets to that point,” she said.

“In general, the standards themselves for K-3, especially the foundations standards, are consistent with the science of learning,” said Joanne Weiss, a literacy consultant and former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who spoke at the event. But there’s “such technical expertise” needed to develop and sequence a K-2 foundational skills curriculum, she said, that many of the publishers who jumped into the market with high-quality, standards-aligned materials didn’t touch the early grades.

“So we’re still stuck with some of the old stuff that owns the market and isn’t aligned to the standards or to the science,” Weiss said. (A recent Education Week survey of teachers found that the many of the most popular early reading programs and approaches aren’t evidence-based.)

Some publishers have started making these connections, but coherence in general is still a “fundamental problem,” said Steiner.

“We really lack a pre-K-12 ELA curriculum that is high quality, that is responsive to the science of learning from the beginning, that is then building that science of learning into a content-rich sequential curriculum that gives us the knowledge build that we know we need,” he said.

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