Indiana as the New Beacon in Science of Reading

After far too many years, the fights continuing to rage under the banner of “science of reading.” For decades now, educators, policymakers, parents, and communities have battled fiercely over how best to teach reading — phonics, whole or balanced language, and scientifically based reading.

While we have seen pockets of demonstrable success and progress over the past decade, the overall statistics remain relatively unchanged. For more than a decade now, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Program has reported that 70 percent of fourth graders are unable to read at proficient levels. About the same number of students will drop out of high school seven or eight years later, as reported annually by Education Week’s Diploma Counts.

In 2013, Mississippi charted new territory in calling for the adoption of “science of reading” when it comes to both the teaching and learning of literacy. Six years later, and the teachers and students of Mississippi could see the difference, as reading scores experienced a demonstrable rise. As of this past summer, 28 states and the District of Columbia have followed Mississippi’s lead, making “science of reading” the required approach in elementary school classrooms.

These states recognize that we do not have to accept the statistics of the past as destiny. Despite our past struggles in getting all students proficient in reading, we know what steps need to be taken. Those bold states and educators are now taking those steps, doing what is necessary to improve the learning process in our schools, close the achievement gap, and transform every child into a strong, effective reader. Despite years and years of hearing that such actions were either too hard, too controversial, or too much of a change from what has always been done, we are finally starting to do it.

Whether one looks at the decades of research compiled through the work of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Reading Research program, the National Research Council’s 1998 Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children report, the American Federation of Teachers’ Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, and many others, there is general consensus on the most effective ways to teach young children to read. In fact, 21 years after the release of the NRP report, its findings still stand. Despite multiple efforts to disprove scientifically based reading, it is what is proven effective with virtually all learners.

While children may enter the reading continuum at different points, a strong and confident reader requires measurable skills in all five components. In building upon each other, these components provide a strong foundation on which ongoing reading proficiency is based.

These are matters of classroom instruction and local curriculum, right? What does state policy have to do with it? The challenge many states have faced in the past decade has been to create policy that will infuse these five proven principles into classroom instruction. It is not enough to simply identify what components of the literacy acquisition process can and should be included. Good state policy can provide significant leadership in this area by:

  • Ensuring that courses in the science of reading are part of any pre-service education program and are required of all new public elementary school teachers of record.
  • Improving the pre-service and in-service training so that all teachers (in all subjects and grades), not just reading educators, at least learn the basics of evidence-based reading instruction (right now, most of our schools of education severely lack pre-service education in evidence-based reading).
  • Focusing on the instructional materials necessary to help virtually all students acquire those five skills, be it through statewide adoption processes or funding priorities, and providing educators specific training in how to use them.
  • Empowering well-trained educators by ensuring the necessary data systems and professional development supports to tailor classroom instructional practice to meet the individual needs of each student.
  • Providing districts and schools with tools and data to identify those students who are most at risk for reading failure — arguably one of the most important needs a state can fill. Learning gaps don’t just appear at the conclusion of the third grade. The warning signs are there before many of our youngest learners begin their first day of kindergarten. Fortunately, according to the book Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education:

Knowing all this is not enough, though. If we are serious about closing achievement gaps and giving all children — regardless of race, family income or zip code — the opportunity to truly succeed in school, we must translate this knowledge into action by building a commitment for a solution, mobilizing stakeholders and enacting change.

That is why the actions recently taken in Indiana are so important to the future of the science of reading and to the future of generations of learners in the Hoosier State. At the end of this past summer, the Indiana Department of Education announced a $111 investment from the Lilly Endowment to support early literacy programs built upon the science of reading. With this investment, the state will:

  • Support the deployment of instructional coaches to schools throughout Indiana;
  • Offer stipends to teachers who participate in professional development focused on the Science of Reading;
  • Provide targeted support for students who need the most help in improving their reading skills; and
  • Create a literacy center focused on Science of Reading strategies.

The Lilly Endowment followed this by revealing its intentions to make $25 million available to colleges and universities across the state to use evidence-based instructional methods to improve elementary teacher education programs across Indiana. These planning and implementation grants will allow institutions of higher education across the state to ensure that their teacher education students are now prepared in the methods, approaches, and research that school districts will now demand of all those leading elementary school classrooms.

Years from now, we may likely be talking about the Indiana miracle, and how the collaborative efforts including the state, school districts, educators, philanthropy, and families dramatically improved reading proficiency, student performance, and economic success. It may very well become the exemplar for effective literacy instruction and teacher development. And it all began with the declaration that all students deserve, need, and are entitled to the science of reading.

Full disclosure, Patrick Riccards has worked as an advisor to Lilly Endowment, but only because he completely believes in the strategy and approach it is taking to improve literacy in Indiana.

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Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator