As states adopt science of reading, one group calls for better teacher training, curriculum

A student reads a textbook on a desk in a classroom.
A student reads during class at Democracy Prep Endurance Elementary School in the Bronx. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has announced a new literacy initiative as New York City schools undertake their own reading overhaul. (Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat)

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Wisconsin is creating a new literacy office and hiring reading coaches. Ohio is dedicating millions to a curriculum overhaul. Indiana is requiring new teacher training.

Dozens of states are moving to align their teaching practices with the science of reading, a body of research on how children learn that emphasizes explicit phonics instruction alongside helping students build vocabulary and knowledge about the world. But a national policy group says many states still have significant work to do to ensure strong reading instruction.

A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality finds that half of states don’t set specific standards telling teacher prep programs what future educators should know about teaching reading, and 28 states cede their authority over teacher prep programs to outside accrediting agencies with vague guidelines. A similar number of states administer weak licensure tests, the report said, creating uncertainty about how well prepared teachers are.

Meanwhile, just nine states require that districts adopt high-quality reading curriculum, NCTQ’s analysis found. Only three of those — South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — require districts to choose curriculum from a state-approved list and cover the cost for districts.

NCTQ President Heather Peske hopes the report can serve as a roadmap for states looking to improve reading instruction.

“We cannot continue to accept the reading outcomes that we’ve been seeing,” she said.

Last year, NCTQ’s review of hundreds of teacher preparation programs found that thousands of educators graduate every year unprepared to teach children how to read, or trained using debunked literacy instruction strategies.

Some of the states that got good ratings from NCTQ in its new report have been at it for years. Mississippi passed its first reading law a decade ago. Colorado stepped up regulation of its teacher prep programs five years ago.

Other states NCTQ called out for their weak policies are just getting started. Illinois is poised to adopt a new literacy plan this year. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul just announced a major new literacy initiative. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy highlighted early literacy in his State of the State speech.

NCTQ makes five main recommendations. States should set well-defined standards for how teacher prep programs teach reading, review those programs thoroughly, use a rigorous licensing test that includes all components of how students learn to read, require that districts use high-quality curriculum, and provide ongoing training and support.

These types of policies often face pushback from school districts, universities, and teachers unions that see politicians infringing on educators’ authority and autonomy.

In Colorado, some school districts initially resisted state curriculum guidelines. Others struggled to find approved curriculum that felt culturally responsive. In Illinois, political opposition and lack of state funding means the new literacy plan has no teeth. In Ohio, Reading Recovery, a popular but increasingly disfavored reading program, is suing the state for banning certain methods of teaching.

NCTQ’s reports have also come in for criticism for their technical and narrow view of good teaching, for being incomplete, or for not relying on the right data — Peske said states had multiple opportunities to review the latest report and offer corrections. Other advocacy groups have laid out different priorities for reading instruction.

Melinda Person, president of the New York state teachers union, is excited the governor wants to invest $10 million in teacher training aligned with the science of reading. But she’s cautious about calls to get every district to adopt curriculum that meets a currently undetermined standard. She fears that state-approved lists could be influenced by lobbying or force districts to abandon good programs developed by local educators.

“Teaching a child to read is a very complex task,” Person said. “Don’t oversimplify this. It is brain science. Hundreds of studies are pointing us in this direction, but they are not pointing us to ‘buy this curriculum.’”

Data lacking on curriculum in school districts

Twelve states received “strong” ratings overall in NCTQ’s report, including Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

NCTQ categorized 16 states as having “weak” reading policies, including Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, while three states — Maine, Montana, and South Dakota — were marked as “unacceptable” because they had few or no state-level reading policies.

An analysis by Education Week found that 32 states and the District of Columbia have adopted new reading laws since 2013, but NCTQ found many of these states still had major gaps in teacher preparation or curriculum.

States with strong oversight of teacher prep programs lost points for having weak standards, and states with strong standards lost points for weak oversight. More than half of states, NCTQ found, review the syllabi of teacher preparation programs, but just 10 include literacy experts in the process.

Most teacher prep programs don’t devote at least two instructional hours to how to teach English learners to read in an unfamiliar language or to supporting struggling readers, NCTQ’s analysis found. Even fewer programs provide opportunities for student teachers to practice those skills.

Meanwhile, 21 states don’t collect any data on the curriculum their districts use, nearly half offer no guidance on picking curriculums that serve English learners, and a third offer no guidance on how to use curriculum to support struggling readers. Even in states that value local control, Peske said states have a duty to offer guidance, and many administrators likely would welcome it.

NCTQ’s analysis does not address third-grade retention policies that have been adopted in 13 states. Nor did NCTQ’s report address universal screeners that look for warning signs of reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

Advocacy groups like JerseyCAN have made universal screeners and parental notification key parts of their platform. “Parents cannot ring the alarm or participate in this goal effectively if they don’t know where their children stand,” Executive Director Paula White said.

Linking new policies to test scores can be challenging. Mississippi students’ growth on national exams has been touted as a “miracle.” But students there still have lower test scores than students in some more affluent states with weaker policies.

New York and New Jersey governors elevate literacy

New Jersey received a weak rating from NCTQ due to inadequate standards for teacher prep programs, no requirement that elementary teachers have reading training, and no curriculum requirements or even guidelines for local districts.

White, the JerseyCAN leader, said she hopes the state is turning the corner after years in which people told her “we got this, we’ll do it on our own,” or “We’re already doing what you want us to do, so why should we expend energy on state policy or legislation?”

In neighboring New York, NCTQ gave the state some credit for strong state oversight of teacher prep. But the state lost points because reading standards aren’t specific enough. Nor does New York require districts to adopt high-quality curriculum — its powers are limited under state law.

Hochul’s push on literacy comes as New York City is months into its own reading overhaul, with schools required to adopt one of three approved curriculums. It’s not clear yet how the state might encourage districts using low-quality curriculum to make different choices. State officials are also developing a plan to incorporate more science of reading into teacher prep programs.

Judy Boksner, a literacy coach and reading specialist at P.S. 28 in the Bronx, recalls the “aha moment” she experienced after getting trained in the science of reading on her own time. She said the approach helps more students more reliably than the methods she was previously trained to use, but it can be slow at first.

Curriculum and training requirements are good, Boksner said, but schools still need ongoing support, including literacy coaches.

“In all these curriculums, they have tasks in them. We don’t know if they’ve all been tested in the field. Some of the tasks are so hard for kids, and if you don’t train your teachers well, kids will still struggle,” Boksner said.

Illinois on verge of adopting new literacy plan

In giving Illinois a “weak” rating, NCTQ found the state has set good standards for teacher preparation programs, but called for more oversight to ensure programs are following through. And NCTQ labeled as “unacceptable” Illinois’ lack of any guidance around high quality curriculum.

The report comes just as Illinois is finalizing a literacy plan to help school districts revamp how students are taught to read. After a two-year legislative fight, advocates successfully passed a bill last year that requires the Illinois State Board of Education to write a literacy plan, create a rubric for school districts to grade curriculum, and offer professional development to teachers.

But the new law does not mandate school districts adopt a phonics-based approach that’s key to the science of reading. Other ideas, such as reading grants and an approved curriculum list, didn’t survive the political process.

“There are really no mandates on school districts,” said Stand for Children Illinois Executive Director Jessica Handy, a literacy advocate who helped write the 2023 bill and negotiated with lawmakers. “I think reading grants would be one way to get buy-in from school districts and get more people thinking about how they can accelerate their progress to improve literacy curriculum.”

Education advocates hope to see $45 million from $550 million in new state funding go towards regional literacy coaches and state board staff that work just on literacy — and Stand is working on a new bill that Handy hopes strengthens the literacy plan.

Erica Meltzer is Chalkbeat’s national editor based in Colorado. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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