Any discussion about “equity” in education that is not first and foremost a discussion about literacy is unserious. Wide and persistent gaps between White and Black students, stretching back decades, make it abundantly clear—or ought to—that state education officials have no more urgent business to attend to than ensuring that every child can read in every school under their control or influence. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress has turned grim with two-thirds of states showing no progress on reading at all, and seventeen declining in the most recent round of testing in 2019. With profound and persistent disruptions to schooling in the past year, there is no basis to be optimistic for a reversal of these trends any time soon.
To its credit, the Council of Chief State School Officers understands this rock-bottom priority. CCSSO has emerged in recent years as a consistent, informed, and energetic proponent of the “science of reading,” and has put considerable effort into championing state initiatives to encourage the adoption and implementation of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) in literacy. Its new report, A Nation of Readers, describes “concrete actions” that state leaders can take to improve the caliber of reading instruction and materials in classrooms within their borders. It’s required reading for any state or district official in a position to influence curriculum adoptions, professional development, or teacher training and certification.
“State chiefs can play an essential role in articulating and advocating for the urgency of coherent literacy policy predicated on evidence-based practices regarding how children learn to read as well as how to teach reading,” the report notes. But this is not mere bully pulpit tub-thumping. The report details concrete steps state education agencies can and should take to push, prod, or cajole districts and schools to ensure classroom practice reflects what we know about teaching reading. “Often driven by tradition and a lack of access to rigorous research on outcomes, too many districts do not align their reading policies, programs, and practices with the current evidence base regarding how reading skills develop. District decisions and teacher practices often occur in a vacuum, without clear state guidance or support around what constitutes high-quality literacy instruction.” Just so.
The report stems from a convening last January of state chiefs and policy experts on how to improve reading skills for all students and to grapple with systemic barriers to improving reading outcomes and set forth action state leaders could take to remove those barriers. According to the report, seventeen states have either passed laws or proposed new legislation designed to “encourage or require” districts to implement the science of reading. Louisiana, for example, put a statewide “Instructional Materials Review” process in place several years ago, which has become a national model. Arkansas’s 2017 “Right to Read” Act requires that all K–6 core content teachers and all K–12 special educators and reading specialists in the state must complete professional development pathway and obtain a “proficiency credential” on the science of reading. Nebraska provides guidance and technical assistance to districts on instructional materials selection, and collects data on each district’s curriculum, displaying the data on a statewide “Instructional Materials Map.”
The report recommends “engaging college and university partners” in support of states’ reading strategy. This is a crucial and often overlooked lever, even in states that have taken bold steps to push the adoption and use of “high quality instructional materials.” Curriculum doesn’t teach itself. At the CCSSO literacy summit last January, David Steiner, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and New York’s former state education commissioner, highlighted state education departments’ curious reluctance to cross swords with the colleges and universities they nominally oversee, reminding the state chiefs in attendance that they have “multiple tools at their disposal they’re simply not using.” The report quotes Steiner at length: “Accreditation is a real tool. A school of education, an alternative certification program cannot operate if the state says it can’t operate. Certification is a real tool. Teachers cannot teach if the state says they’re not certified to do so.” Steiner encouraged state superintendents to hold schools of education to account for the impact their graduates have in the classroom.
The National Council on Teacher Quality has documented promising progress on reading instruction. Its 2020 Teacher Prep Review found that just over half of elementary teacher preparation programs earned an “A” or “B” for coverage of the science of reading in their course offerings, up from just 35 percent seven years ago. Still, the vast majority of teachers attend ed schools in the states in which they are licensed and ultimately work. The power of accreditation implies the potential for states to align not just instruction, assessment, and professional learning, but teacher certification and licensure to ensure that teachers graduate not merely familiar with the science of reading but trained and qualified to teach one or more specific reading curricula built upon it, and prepared to implement it with fidelity on day one. There are obvious advantages to districts and schools having a pool of candidates qualified to teach the specific programs they have been encouraged to adopt, and for universities to track which of those programs lead to their teachers getting reliably hired—a “last mile” solution that would complete the virtuous circle forward-thinking states are already building.
Covid-19 had not yet entered our vocabulary last January when the CCSSO summit convened, but the pandemic is a reason press on—not press pause—with these recommendations. “SEAs should be clear about the importance of reading instruction as a key lever for accelerating unfinished learning,” the authors note. Covid relief funding “gives districts a unique opportunity to invest in effective reading instruction, including curriculum and professional development.... The evidence base for how children learn early foundational reading skills is settled,” the report concludes with admirable clarity and certainty. “State chiefs are uniquely positioned and uniquely responsible for driving improvements in literacy founded on evidence-based practices.”
CCSSO has laid out a clear and compelling set of action steps that are well within the power of every state to achieve and every state chief to drive.