Indiana’s Republican governor just signed into law a bill that mandates, among other things, that schools in the Hoosier state adopt curricula and supplemental materials that align with the science of reading. This new statute is the latest in what has been a flurry of activity to improve student literacy across the country. Notably, more states are cracking down on curriculum, constraining what local districts can adopt when it comes to the selection of instructional materials.
State laws vary considerably regarding the curricula that schools can use to teach reading. Only a dozen or so take an active role in prescribing how districts pick their core English language arts programs. There’s also appreciable variation in how states approach a slew of other components that affect reading instruction, including mandating phonics, implementing interventions, providing training, and—more recently—prohibiting three-cueing. Indeed, there are differing opinions on whether classroom practice can be improved at all from the lofty perch of statehouses, but emerging research points out how some laws work better than others.
First, a report released in February by ExcelinEd and the Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University suggests that having a retention policy in place is an important consideration for states that are serious about legislating their way toward reading proficiency. The study found that ELA scores for Mississippi third graders who were retained were substantially higher in sixth grade than for those who were just barely promoted, a positive effect that was driven primarily by Black and Hispanic students.
Studies out of several other states have also shown that retention in the early grades is connected to improvements in literacy outcomes. A new study of Indiana’s test-based retention policy—installed over a decade ago when I was working under former Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett—found “large positive effects” on student achievement in both ELA and mathematics, with the effects persisting into middle school. To be sure, retaining kids for whatever reason has plenty of detractors, but the prospect of student retention often has attention-focusing effects that can impel adults to take action before a child is held back.
Second, a new study from researchers at Michigan State University underscores the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to reading legislation. The upshot: Some states that passed early literacy laws saw increased achievement on state tests, but only those with “comprehensive policies”—legislation that provided support, training, funding, and test-based retention—also realized performance gains on national tests.
These comprehensive policies led to more sustained achievement effects on state exams. Overall, the findings are consistent with previous research on retention policies that show holding students back is most effective when done earlier and paired with additional support.
Third, a new long-term study by University of Virginia researchers seems to validate the efficacy of the Core Knowledge sequence and, by extension, the beneficial effects of a rich, knowledge-based language arts curriculum. Specifically, the study found that elementary school students who attended Core Knowledge charter schools in Colorado were better readers, with reading gains particularly large for low-income students.
The paper garnered mixed reviews, in part because it’s hard to run experiments on knowledge building. Still, there’s a productive role for policymakers, if not in mandating specific curricula, then in creating and sustaining the conditions, most particularly patience (more on that below), required for primary schools to be grounded in the science of reading. Being able to decode comes first; developing rich content knowledge is what comes (forever) after.
Finally, a new NBER working paper by Brown University’s Emily Oster et al. calls out two early science-of-reading adopters as among the biggest post-Covid recovery states thus far:
Most notably, we find that the two states in our sample with the earliest adoption of SOR legislation (Mississippi in 2013 and South Carolina in 2014) are the only two states to fully recover their pandemic learning losses by 2022. Legislation from both states addressed, at a minimum, teacher preparation, professional development, and instruction…the correlation may indicate that such legislation could be an important component in academic recovery.
What does this all mean? Every state should commit to a comprehensive approach when it comes to early literacy. Don’t be like Michigan and Nevada, which have taken their foot off the gas vis-à-vis test-based retention. Be like Indiana, in its “urgent and necessary” call to action, Arkansas with its enforcement provisions, and Mississippi by emulating its patient, decade-long march toward a better mix of legislative levers, as counseled by Kymyona Burk and Carey Wright:
Any successful recipe has several complementary ingredients, and it is no different for Mississippi’s reading policies. Making sure that teachers are trained in the science of reading is critical, as are early screening and intervention for the youngest students and dedicated reading coaches in schools. The curriculum must be phonics-based, and families must be included every step of the way. But like any recipe, removing or diluting just one ingredient [i.e., retention] can affect everything.
It bears repeating: From teacher prep and job-embedded professional development to measurement and accountability, getting reading legislation right is an all-inclusive proposition that requires time and patience to do well. Hence states have their work cut out for them. Appallingly, a recent scan of districts’ plans for spending American Rescue Plan funds showed that only 4 percent explicitly identified the science of reading as a priority.
Not all is gloom and doom, though. There’s reason to be guardedly optimistic, in large part because of these encouraging new research findings. At last count, forty-one states and D.C. now have an early literacy policy on the books. If the post-pandemic era leads to an exponential increase in student literacy outcomes, it will be because lawmakers and other officials helped by doing their part to smartly optimize the policy conditions in their states.