Reading & Literacy

What Makes a Strong Early Reading Law? Not Everyone Agrees

By Sarah Schwartz — January 16, 2024 5 min read
A Kindergarten teacher sits with a small group of students as she reads a story allow to them.
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As states have passed new laws requiring changes to how reading is taught, educators and policymakers want to know: Will these mandates actually lead to better student outcomes?

At least one organization is skeptical. Despite the wave of policy action, states still aren’t doing enough to prepare and train teachers in evidence-based methods, which could hamper their ability to improve student literacy, one new analysis claims. It’s particularly critical of what the new laws do around teacher preparation.

The report, from the research and policy group the National Council on Teacher Quality, argues that at least half of the states aren’t setting specific enough guidance for teacher-preparation programs, aren’t adequately evaluating these programs, and don’t properly assess whether teachers have the knowledge they need to conduct research-aligned instruction.

“The reason that we’re focusing on teacher preparation as well as teacher in-service, is that we know that when teachers are not well-prepared to teach children to read, there are sobering consequences,” said Heather Peske, the president of NCTQ.

The organization’s analysis examines state regulations as well as legislation across all states. Since 2019, more than half of all states have passed new laws aimed at bringing early reading instruction in line with the evidence base on how children learn to read.

Not all of these laws are the same. Some focus mainly on providing reading interventions for struggling students; others take a more comprehensive approach, requiring districts to change curriculum and instruction for all kids. Some states offer districts flexibility in how they meet mandates, while others require districts to pick from lists of pre-approved trainings and materials. (For more on the differences between laws, see Education Week’s tracker.)

And as this trend has spread, education groups have begun to analyze the contents of this legislation, debating which components make for stronger policies. It’s a subjective question, and while certain reading practices have large bodies of evidence behind them, assessing the policy levers that lead those practices to be adopted and yeild better student outcomes isn’t so clear.

NCTQ’s report is the latest in this collection of analyses. Its criteria focuses largely on teachers’ role in the change process. The organization also favors a more prescriptive approach, awarding points to states that review university syllabi and require districts to pick reading curricula from an approved list.

Other experts have different opinions.

“That legislation on the whole basically says, we need to move toward a science of reading,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University who co-authored a separate survey of early literacy laws last summer. “I think states that try to stipulate and regulate at the lower levels … that’s a problem.”

Shaping laws that pull the right levers

NCTQ’s attention to teachers in these policies is consistent with the organization’s focus on teacher quality—over the years, NCTQ has released evaluations of preservice programs’ reading instruction and the licensure tests given to aspiring educators.

Under the group’s recommendations, states should set detailed standards for what teachers should know and be able to do when it comes to evidence-based reading instruction, and adopt licensure tests that assess this knowledge. They also should conduct their own evaluations of teacher preparation programs’ reading-related offerings—rather than relying on national accrediting organizations.

Most states don’t meet these criteria. Half have detailed teacher-preparation standards in reading, and 20 require a licensure test that meets NCTQ’s requirements.

Mandating this level of oversight into teacher preparation programs is difficult, said Neuman. Professors and education departments usually operate with more autonomy than school districts, and there’s incredible resistance to anything that seems like an incursion into that academic freedom, she said.

Governance can be an issue, too: Sometimes a state’s higher education commission, rather than its K-12 education department, reviews its teacher-preparation programs.

Still, Peske countered that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” She offered Colorado as an example, in which state reviewers conduct on-site visits in university classes.

NCTQ also recommends that states provide professional development for current teachers on the science of reading—which most do—and that they require districts to select from a list of high-quality reading curricula. Only nine states mandate that they do that.

These requirements are all equally important, Peske argued: “Kind of like an orchestra, it has to have each section of instruments coming together to create music.”

Other organization’s evaluations prioritize different policy choices. ExcelinEd, an advocacy group founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has developed a model “comprehensive” early literacy policy, which spans 17 criteria from hiring reading coaches to banning instructional methods that aren’t backed by research. It also includes 3rd grade retention, a policy in which students who aren’t reading on grade-level don’t move on to 4th grade. Only four states meet all of these specifications.

Neuman co-authored another analysis, published last July by the Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. It highlighted gaps in the state laws’ content, implementation support, and community engagement.

While 26 states’ legislation mentioned involving parents and other stakeholders in reading initiatives, only 14 laws outlined what this might look like, according to the Shanker Institute report. And while most states focus on teacher training, only about one-third have specific requirements around curriculum or school leadership.

Many laws also neglected to highlight the importance of certain components of reading instruction—such as oral-language development and content knowledge—and that all of this instruction should be integrated into a cohesive experience for students, Neuman said.

“Reading First was all about those five pillars,” said Neuman, referring to the five components of reading outlined in the federally funded National Reading Panel Report, published in 2000.

Neuman served as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under George W. Bush during the administration of the Reading First program—an earlier attempt to align reading instruction with evidence-based practice. National evaluations of Reading First found that it had positive effects on students’ phonics skills, but not on comprehension.

“What did we see?” Neuman asked. “It was buckets of skill development that had no coherence.”

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