Governor DeWine recently unveiled a bold plan to significantly improve early literacy in Ohio. His strategy centers on requiring schools to use curriculum and materials that are aligned with the science of reading—instruction based on the well-established five pillars of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Phonics, which teaches children to recognize the relationship between sounds and letters and then use that knowledge to decode words, is particularly important for foundational reading. To support rigorous implementation of evidence-based practices, the governor has also recommended $174 million in additional state spending on literacy initiatives.
The governor deserves lots of kudos for tackling early literacy with the urgency it deserves, especially amidst data indicating that thousands of Ohio students are struggling to read fluently. But plans can always be sharpened and strengthened, and we wish to offer four ways that House and Senate lawmakers could improve upon the foundation laid by the governor. Consider the following:
1. Shore up the provisions around high-quality instructional materials
Curriculum reform isn’t typically exciting, but in places where it’s been implemented effectively, it’s had positive impacts. That includes Mississippi, where state leaders have focused on aligning instruction, including curriculum, and teacher professional development with the science of reading, and have seen greatly improved student outcomes as a result. DeWine’s plan follows in Mississippi’s footsteps (along with other states) by requiring schools to use high-quality curriculum aligned with the science of reading, while providing funding for high-quality instructional materials. But there are two places where the governor’s plan could use some shoring up.
First, as a matter of full transparency, legislators should require districts to post and annually update their websites with information about which core reading curriculum and literacy intervention programs are being used at each of their schools. As is the case in Colorado, this would ensure that schools are being transparent with parents and taxpayers about their efforts to meet state requirements around high-quality curricula.
Second, DeWine’s proposal calls for a statewide survey to gather information on the core reading curriculum, materials, and literacy intervention programs currently being used by public schools. That’s a critical step; state leaders need to know what schools are using. But to ensure accuracy, the state should add language that requires schools to be specific in their answers. The devil is often in the details. That means including not only the title of the curriculum or resource, but also the publisher and year of publication. These are important details, as curricula and textbooks change and earlier versions may not be as well-aligned as their more recent counterparts.
2. Scrap the waiver language
DeWine’s proposal wisely prohibits schools from using the three-cueing approach, which deemphasizes phonics and instead encourages students to make predictions and use context clues (i.e., guess) to identify words. But the governor’s proposal also gives schools an out. They can apply to ODE for a waiver “on an individual student basis” to use curriculum and materials that embrace ineffective three-cueing. ODE must consider the district or school’s performance on state report cards, including the early literacy component, before granting a waiver.
Unfortunately, this provision isn’t what’s best for students. Research overwhelmingly indicates that three-cueing doesn’t work. Using pictures and context clues to guess words isn’t reading, and sooner or later, those “skills” will cease to serve students well. Furthermore, adding a waiver for individual students overlooks that most curriculum are used school-wide, grade-wide, or within specific classrooms. When students need individualized attention and specialized materials, it’s typically because they’re struggling—in which case, methods like three-cueing should be the last thing that teachers use.
3. Consider how to respond to non-compliance
While the overwhelming majority of schools would likely follow a science of reading requirement—and many, in fact, already use this model—it’s also possible that some will drag their heels. To address such situations, state leaders should add non-compliance provisions. Possible avenues include withholding a portion of state funding (something that Arkansas does) and/or issuing a corrective action plan. Schools that continue to use misaligned or low-quality curriculum should be held responsible for the negative impacts that these decisions can have on students, and the state should ensure that steps are quickly taken to shift gears.
4. Ensure teacher preparation programs are following the science
The governor’s proposal focuses on overhauling literacy instruction through professional development and curricula reforms that impact current teachers and students, which should be celebrated. But the state should also ensure that its next generation of teachers is properly trained in the science of reading. Otherwise, elementary schools will need to retrain incoming teachers all over again (at enormous cost to students and to budgets). Lawmakers could ensure that teacher candidates receive rigorous training by creating a new review process that requires elementary preparation programs to provide evidence of alignment with the science of reading. Program approval from the state would then hinge on such reviews.
Policymakers have a moral obligation to ensure that schools are doing what’s best for kids—especially in regard to reading, the cornerstone of academic and lifelong success. Governor DeWine’s early literacy proposal is both well-timed and backed by research indicating that literacy instruction based on the science of reading gives students the best opportunities to becoming fluent readers. With a few adjustments—and a steadfast commitment to see all of this through—Ohio will be poised to make real progress in literacy.
Shannon Holston serves as NCTQ’s Chief of Policy and Programs.