In late June, the national educational advocacy organization ExcelinEd published a comprehensive early literacy guide for state policymakers. The guide, which was developed alongside members of the organization’s Early Literacy Network, outlines best practices and strategies that have been successful in other states’ efforts to improve reading outcomes. The timing couldn’t be better, as Ohio policymakers are mulling changes to our early literacy laws. And while there are plenty of worthwhile policy suggestions within the guide, here’s a look at three that Ohio leaders should pay special attention to.
1. Offer better support to teachers and administrators
Research is clear that, when it comes to students’ academic performance, teachers matter most among school-related factors. If Ohio wants to improve early literacy outcomes, every child needs access to an effective teacher—and to be effective, every teacher needs to be well-versed in the science of reading.
Ohio is already on the right track. State law requires educators who teach grades pre-K–9, as well as intervention specialists, to pass Ohio’s Foundations of Reading exam prior to receiving a teaching license. Ohio Administrative Code also requires the completion of a minimum of twelve semester hours of college coursework covering topics like phonics, phonemic awareness, reading instruction, assessment, and remediation. Ohio’s efforts to align teacher preparation programs with the science of reading are even highlighted by ExcelinEd as a model for other states.
But pre-service training isn’t the only training that matters. Classroom teachers need ongoing and personalized support that won’t break the bank, and ExcelinEd’s literacy guide spotlights two states that Ohio could use as models. First is the Cornhusker State. During the 2020–21 school year, the Nebraska Department of Education partnered with TNTP to virtually host a professional development series for teachers that focused on the science of reading. The four-part series offered professional learning sessions on phonological awareness and phonics, knowledge and vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, and data analysis, as well as corresponding community of practice sessions that provided a more in-depth look at implementation. Professional learning sessions were recorded and made available to teachers who were unable to attend.
To be clear, Ohio does provide helpful online resources for teachers. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has a website , a “,” and a on the nuts and bolts of . But the state doesn’t appear to offer in-depth professional development opportunities that focus solely on the science of reading—or even early literacy in general—to current teachers. That should change. Ohio policymakers could take a page out of Nebraska’s book and partner with a reputable organization like TNTP to make it happen. Or they could charge the state’s fifty-one educational service centers with developing in-depth training sessions that are rooted in the science of reading and available to all elementary teachers free of charge. Either way, it’s critical for state leaders to ensure that current classroom teachers have access to free learning opportunities that will keep them up to date on the latest research and best practices and provide opportunities to collaborate with other educators.
The second spotlight state is Mississippi. ExcelinEd had its pick of policies to highlight from the Magnolia State, as it’s made substantial academic progress over the last decade, especially in early literacy. In fourth grade reading gains on, Mississippi second of all states from 2009 to 2019 and first from 2017 to 2019. State test scores have also steadily improved, a clear indicator that NAEP growth isn’t just a fluke. state superintendent Carey Wright to a “laser-like focus on literacy” that included increased professional development for elementary teachers and literacy coaching.
ExcelinEd opted to home in on Mississippi’s use of literacy coaches, perhaps because Florida—another state with solid early literacy outcomes—also uses them. In Mississippi, literacy coaches are provided each year to identified schools, with varying levels of support based on “data and sustainable achievement over time.” Ohio would be wise to invest in this kind of consistent, on-site support for educators. Like Mississippi, Ohio could sidestep a potential staffing shortage by limiting literacy coaching to certain schools—perhaps those that rank in the bottom 10 percent of the early literacy component on state report cards. Coaches in these schools could work closely with teachers to facilitate training that’s based on the science of reading, model evidence-based instructional strategies and data-driven best practices, and observe lessons to provide immediate feedback.
2. Take advantage of out-of-school time
For struggling readers, time is critical. They need as much time as possible with highly effective teachers and well-trained tutors, but there are only so many hours in a school day. Those hours often aren’t enough, so it’s crucial for students to have access to intervention efforts before and after school, as well as during the summer months.
ExcelinEd spotlights several states as examples for how to capitalize on out-of-school time with regard to early literacy. Michigan offers a grant that provides nearly $20 million to districts to fund additional instructional time for pre-K–3 students who have been identified as needing additional reading support and intervention. And in Tennessee, legislation passed in 2021 required districts to implement extended learning programs as a way of addressing pandemic-caused learning loss. Tennessee requires schools to offer seats in these programs to “priority” students first, and while the definition of priority varies depending on the program, it includes students who scored below proficient on state exams in reading.
The Buckeye State has already devoted plenty of funding toward leveraging out-of-school time. For example, the Summer Learning and Afterschool Opportunities Grant is a competitive grant program designed to fund partnerships between schools and community-based organizations to establish or expand afterschool programs, as well as summer learning and enrichment programs. In late April, ODE announced that 161 community-based partners would be awarded $89 million to implement evidence-based programs designed to meet the needs of students who “experienced disruptions to learning and did not engage consistently in school during the pandemic.” Given that there’s still ground to be made up on learning loss, this was a wise investment. But it would also be smart for Ohio to establish a permanent, early-literacy version of this grant program. Interested districts and schools (and perhaps libraries) could apply for funds to pay for reading intervention programs offered before and after school, or for summer reading camps.
3. Hold the line on retention
Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee has been the law of the land since 2012. Several of the guarantee’s components—such as identifying struggling readers as early as kindergarten or creating reading improvement plans for identified students—enjoy broad support. But the Guarantee’s requirement that schools retain students who can’t read proficiently by third grade is more controversial.
Critics argue that holding students back fails to help them and may even cause harm. But as ExcelinEd’s guide notes, there’s a trove of data that challenges that claim. A 2017 Florida study using regression discontinuity found that retention in third grade increased students’ high school GPAs, led them to take fewer remedial courses, and had no negative impact on graduation. A 2018 study on the costs and benefits of test-based promotion in Florida found that the threat of retention led to statistically significant and substantial increases in math and reading performance within third grade. And a 2020 brief found that third grade test-based promotion policies in Florida and Arizona led to statistically significant and meaningful average test-score improvement within third grade even before the policy retained any students. Florida and Arizona aren’t the only states that have seen improved outcomes thanks to a retention policy, either. Mississippi—which, as noted earlier, has had impressive NAEP reading gains over the past decade—implemented the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. Among myriad other interventions, students who do not score proficient or above the lowest two achievement levels on state tests are retained.
Ohio has apolitically unpopular policies that seek to improve student outcomes. But history doesn’t have to repeat itself. Ohio lawmakers can and should recognize that retention is backed by solid research, and that students who aren’t able to read proficiently by the end of third grade need more time to catch up with their peers. Retention coupled with intensive support can help kids become lifelong skilled readers.
As state policymakers search for ways to improve early literacy and student outcomes, it’s important to consider rigorous research and evidence of what’s worked in other states. ExcelinEd’s recent brief shines a spotlight on both, and the recommendations included within—and outlined above—would be a great place for Ohio leaders to start.