Reading Gaining Speed as Fed Priority?

With all of the talk about RttT, school turnarounds, and the like, we haven’t spent much time at all talking about core instructional issues.  As many schools continue to struggle reaching AYP and demonstrating the sort of student achievement we all expect (and that the federal law still demands), we just haven’t been focusing on the curricular foundations that help us get to our intended destination.  This is particularly true of reading instruction, which has been a red-headed stepchild in federal education policy for the past few years (ever since Congress defunded the Reading First program short of its intended completion date).

For the past year, those in DC who pay attention to reading instruction issues have been hearing grumblings about the next generations of Reading First, a new federal policy that would provide comprehensive reading instruction across grades kindergarten through 12.  We’ve seen working drafts circulated about town talking about a more “comprehensive” approach to reading, a greater emphasis on teaching techniques (and less so on instructional materials), and the possibility of a new definition of “scientifically based,” the one term that came to define RF, for good or bad.
But all has been quiet on the reading front for the past six months or so.  The closest we’ve gotten to talk about reading has been discussions of common core standards.  But after six years of making reading instruction in the elementary grades priority number one in school improvement, we’ve all but forgotten about reading.  (OK, most have forgotten.  Some of us have continued to tilt at windmills in search RF, the next generation.)
Now we finally have our answer.  Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation Act, or LEARN.  The bill summary looks remarkably similar to the working drafts being circulated around town earlier this year by folks like the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association and others.  Among LEARN’s highlights:
* $2.35 billion in total funding for K-12 literacy instruction, with at least 10 percent going to early childhood education, 40 percent going to K-5 (RF’s sweet spot), and at least 40 percent going to grades 6-12.
* A new rigorous national evaluation of the programs being funded through LEARN (with a particular note of “stringent conflict of interest restrictions for the program’s peer review process,” a direct response to IG investigation into RF)
* A focus on state-based literacy programs (again similar to RF), focusing on leadership teams, a state literacy plan, subgrants to LEAs, focus on struggling schools, and attention to pre-service literacy instruction.  Interestingly, LEARN also includes language to help fund those districts doing well in reading, so they can continue improvements.
The bill summary offered by Senator Murray’s office also sets forward four key goals.  LEARN is intended to “support the creation of local high-quality literacy programs in schools by:

a) providing high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded, ongoing, and research-based, providing teachers with expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, analyzing data to improve student learning, and effective implementation of literacy instruction strategies; 
b) providing students with explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing, including but not limited to vocabulary development, phonemic awareness, 
reading comprehension, and the use of diverse texts; 
c) utilizing diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to inform and improve instruction and student learning at all age levels; and 
d) supporting schoolwide literacy programs and additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.” 


A similar bill is expected to be offered in the U.S. House of Representatives.  RIght now, LEARN is slated to move forward as an independent piece of legislation, not attached as part of ESEA reauthorization or any other similar bill.  Of course, if ESEA reauth does move quickly early next year (a hope Eduflack is quickly losing confidence in) it could easily be rolled into the larger bill.
So what are we to make of all this?  There is much good here, and much still to be determined, including:
* LEARN re-declares a federal commitment to reading instruction, putting billions more into supporting the advances made by many states and school districts under RF;
* It extends our commitment to reading beyond the previous grades K-4 to K-12, ensuring that all of those children who benefited from RF investments in recent years are now seeing similar commitments in middle and high school;
* It recognizes that reading instruction in those middle and secondary grades is essential to our national goals around high school graduation and college-going, and emphasizes that literacy instruction must continue throughout one’s academic career;
LEARN continues to emphasize the importance of professional development, an often overlooked piece of RF (where the law called for up to 25 percent of RF’s $6 billion be directed to PD and teacher training);
* It actually doubles down on the importance of professional development by specifically focusing on the pre-service needs of preparing teachers to teach reading; and
* It continues our emphasis on explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading.
And what remains TBD here?
* First and foremost, the money.  RF focused $6 billion on the elementary grades, and many are still questioning the effectiveness of the program and its impact.  As we expand the program to include early childhood education (likely swallowing what was Early Reading First), elementary grades (the old Reading First), and middle and high school grades (currently funded by the meager Struggling Readers program), we are now doing for more in federal reading instruction with significantly less money.  Does the proposed funding get the job done, or does it merely set things in motion, leaving it to SEAs and LEAs to find new funds to enact the comprehensive reading efforts needed.  It is frightening to say, but $2.35 billion, particularly if distributed K-12 to all 50 states, likely won’t be enough.
* It talks about instruction beyond vocabulary and phonemic awareness, but doesn’t specify a specific definition.  Some will read this as a repudiation of RF.  Others can see it as a continuation of those priorities, where phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were the intended foci.  Both sides in the reading wars will be fighting to “redefine” what LEARN’s instruction is intended to focus on.
* It calls for diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments at all age levels.  An essential piece to education reform in the current era, without doubt.  But do we have such tests?  RF was limited by state assessments in grades 3-8, yes.  But after spending the past decade in the so-called “high stakes testing” era, do we have research-based, accepted diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments that can be used immediately in grades k-12?  Or a better question, do we have such assessments that all parties will agree on and use correctly?
* While there is mention of “research-based,” how will that be defined?  Clearly, the previous SBRR definition is going to be rewritten.  So how do we capture “research-based,” and how do we do it so that it means something, and isn’t merely a consensus definition that is acceptable by all, but loved by none?
* While I understand the reasons behind it, can we successfully use LEARN money to both raise reading achievement in struggling schools while incentivizing high-performing schools to continue their investment in results-based reading instruction?
* Most importantly, what are the intended outcomes?  If all of the points identified in Murray’s summary of LEARN are followed and followed with fidelity, what should we expect to see at the end of three or four years?
These are all questions that Murray and other legislators will be able to answer in the coming months as LEARN moves through the process.  Regardless, LEARN is a good next step for our federal reading instruction efforts.  Will make RF advocates happy?  No.  Will it satisfy RF critics?  Based on the summary, absolutely not.  But it may just have the right combination to continue to improve the acquisition of reading skills among students in grades K-12, while continuing to equip all teachers with the literacy instruction skills they need to lead a successful classroom.  It continues to focus on doing what works in the classroom, pursuing paths that are supported by the research and demonstrate effectiveness.  And it recognizes that school and student success hinges on a child’s ability to read at grade level, regardless of what grade they are in.
In an era where nearly two-thirds of all of our nation’s eighth graders are unable to score proficient or better on the eighth grade reading NAEP, LEARN is clearly much needed legislation.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the push for Racing, Innovation, and such.  This is too important an issue not to be at center stage for school improvement efforts.

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