Last week, Governor DeWine delivered the first state of the state address of his second term. He covered a wide range of topics, from housing and public safety to workforce and economic development, but began his speech by pointing to the “moral imperative” of ensuring that all Ohio children are “fully educated.”
His primary focus was on early literacy and the fact that 40 percent of Ohio third grade students are not proficient in reading. He didn’t spend time explaining why this should be such cause for concern, but he didn’t need to. Research on outcomes for struggling readers is well-established. A 2012 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that third graders who weren’t proficient in reading were four times as likely to drop out of high school than those who were proficient. Longitudinal analyses conducted in Ohio and elsewhere have produced similar findings. The consequences aren’t limited to academic performance, either. For the estimated 16 million Americans who are functionally illiterate, everyday activities like getting a driver’s license, reading news stories online, or voting are far more difficult than they should be.
Fortunately for Ohioans, the administration seems eager to not only shine a light on early literacy struggles, but to actually do something about them. In his recently released budget recommendations, DeWine invested $174.1 million toward improving literacy and outlined how those funds would be spent. Let’s take a look.
The strategy starts with high-quality curriculum. In his address, DeWine reminded listeners that there is a “great deal of research about how we learn to read.” And he’s right. The science of reading—the pedagogy and practices proven to effectively teach children how to read—focuses on five main components: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Phonics, in particular, is crucial. Unfortunately, far too many schools still use curricula and materials that aren’t properly aligned with the science of reading. To fix this, DeWine has a three-step plan.
First, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will be charged with creating a list of high-quality core curriculum and instructional materials in English language arts, as well as a list of evidence-based reading intervention programs, that are aligned with the science of reading. Second, public schools will be required to use the materials and programs that appear on this list—and only those on the list—starting in the 2024–25 school year. Unless schools apply to ODE for a waiver (which they are permitted to do on an individual student basis in certain circumstances), they are forbidden from using any curriculum, materials, or reading intervention programs that utilize the three-cueing approach, which encourages students to make predictions and use context clues to identify words. Third, DeWine has pledged to provide funding to each school to pay for curriculum based on the science of reading.
Funds will also cover the cost of professional development for teachers. Specifically, DeWine has promised that the ODE will “create professional development coursework rooted in evidence-based strategies for effective literacy instruction” and that the state will provide funding to schools to incorporate this literacy training into their classrooms. This is important for two reasons. First, although Ohio requires most teachers to pass a Foundations of Reading exam prior to receiving a teaching license and also mandates the completion of a minimum of twelve semester hours of college coursework covering topics like phonics and reading instruction, such requirements can’t—and weren’t intended to—keep current teachers up-to-date on the best strategies and approaches for teaching reading. Teachers need ongoing support, and providing them with professional development coursework meets that need. Second, by picking up the tab, the state ensures that districts and schools with tight budgets won’t have to skip out on offering critical professional development for the sake of saving a few bucks.
Last but not least, the DeWine administration has pledged that ODE will support up to 100 additional literacy coaches in schools and districts with the lowest reading proficiency. Coaches will implement the Ohio Literacy Coaching Model, which was part of the state’s 2020 plan to raise literacy achievement, and will support the use of high-quality instructional materials statewide. This is a smart move by the administration, as it’s proven effective elsewhere. Mississippi, which has improved its early literacy outcomes to such a degree that it’s been called a “miracle,” also invested in literacy coaches.
All things considered, the DeWine administration has put forth a solid plan for investing in early literacy improvements. There’s still a long way to go before these proposals become law, but the fact that early literacy occupies such a prominent part of the governor’s education agenda is worthy of celebration.