When Kids Can’t Read, States Have To Do Better

“People with good intentions wanted to get kids curled up with books in cozy nooks as fast as they could…and they ended up teaching them shortcuts that don’t get a lot of kids where they need to go.” 

This is one of the lines that struck me most from the final episode of Emily Hanford’s popular new podcast, which explores the serious shortcomings of a few long-established, widely-used literacy programs and promotes instruction based in the science of reading. Hanford points out that more than half of states have passed laws intended to expand evidence-based reading instruction since 2019. But just as she says, good intentions aren’t enough. While many states are prioritizing early literacy – leveraging both policy and pulpit – implementation matters.  

Take Michigan, where a 2016 state law requires districts to provide “evidence-based core reading instruction” and to hold back students who don’t meet literacy standards by grade three. A new report by state university researchers offers troubling information about the impact the law is having on elementary reading instruction, The study finds that just 60% of Michigan districts mandate the use of certain curricular resources in their primary schools, while almost a quarter of teachers statewide report they are not using their district’s most-used program. In total, teachers are using 170 different curricular resources for core reading instruction. Of the 10 most-used, seven are rated by EdReports, and only three of those seven are rated green. My read is that laws like this are only as effective as the state’s emphasis on and investment in high-quality instructional materials and aligned teacher training. 

The same is true for state recommendations. In California, a few poorly-rated elementary reading programs continue to see widespread use. With no state law regulating local choices, districts can either adopt programs from the state’s recommended list (last updated in 2015) or choose anything else they independently determine to align with state standards. Despite this local autonomy, the California Reading Commission finds that just three reading programs are used by 81% of districts – only one of which is rated highly on EdReports. Less than 2% use programs grounded in the science of reading – perhaps unsurprisingly since none of the resources on California’s current list are rooted in this evidence base. And districts will have to wait until at least 2025 for a potentially better set of recommendations; as with many states, this Department of Education updates its framework and recommended materials infrequently. 

On a positive note, Colorado is taking a firmer stance on supporting proven reading curricula at the state level. Instead of allowing schools to choose any program or none at all, districts are now required to select from more than a dozen core curricula that have been approved through a rigorous state review process grounded in evidence. This shift was prompted by a 2019 law promoting high-quality, scientifically based reading instruction in K-3 classrooms. Additionally, Colorado has aligned its state emphasis on strong reading instruction with an increased focus on elementary teacher preparation. Nearly 21,000 of the state’s 23,000 K-3 teachers have already completed 45 hours of mandatory training, and another law ensures that by August 2024, both elementary principals and teachers who work with struggling readers in grades 4-12 will have had the same type of professional learning. 

Here’s my take on what other states can learn from examples like these:

  • Whether required or recommended, provide and widely promote a list of highly-rated, evidence-based literacy curricula. Extra points if the state involves its own teachers in reviewing and vetting the materials on that list and uses ESSER or regular title grant funding to support local adoptions and professional learning.
  • Align teacher preparation requirements to best practices in high-quality curriculum and curriculum-based professional learning.
  • Collect data on local curricular choices – both to examine trends about student and teacher outcomes (academic, engagement, and retention) and to identify opportunities for economy of scale (like streamlined support for multiple districts using the same materials).

As I’ve stated before, local districts are where the heart of curriculum adoption and implementation takes place – but states can and should make it easier for districts to choose and use the best materials. These examples show just a few of the potential moves state leaders can make to turn good intentions into better reading results for kids.

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.