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Reimagining Education

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Can we fix our reading problems in Missouri?

Missouri has a dismal record of successfully teaching our students to read at grade level.

In 2019 (the last year with full data), only 48.7 percent of Missouri students scored at or above grade level in reading.

Why are only half of our students reading on grade-level, a skill that is key to all other successful learning?

A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), reveals that a big part of the problem may be how we teach teachers to teach reading in Missouri.

In fact, the study ranked Missouri 41st in the country for our ability to prepare our teachers to teach reading using scientifically proven methods for success.

According to the study, 59 percent of Missouri’s teacher prep programs “continue to ignore the reading methods most likely to be effective with the highest number of students, in contrast to significant progress being made in most other states.”

Fixing reading instruction a key part of creating equity

“Each year, well over 25,000 public school students in the fourth grade are added to Missouri’s ranks of nonreaders,” NCTQ said in a press release early this year. “The lion’s share are black and Hispanic children struggling in the face of an inequitable education system, with their schools unwilling or unable to provide the reading instruction that decades of research has found to be highly effective. Reading ability is a key predictor of future educational gains and life success, making successful reading instruction essential to achieving educational equity.”

The need to fix Missouri’s reading instruction problem is more important this year than ever before as learning gaps are exasperated by the disruptions the pandemic is causing in our schools and the inequities in the system are being revealed.

“Where, when, and how we teach reading says more about us, than it does the students,” shared Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee. “Explicitly teaching and leveraging the science allows us to overcome our blind spots, assumptions, and biases which impact every aspect of instruction. In other words, the quest to fortify our society and its institutions begins with preparing our teachers to apply the science of reading and reach all students. That’s the way to save us from ourselves and avoid a permanent underclass filling our correctional institutions as prisoners of the ‘reading wars.’”

What is evidenced based reading instruction?

NCTQ identifies five key elements of reading instruction that have been proven to lead to reading success among students:

  • Phonemic Awareness – developing in students awareness of the sounds made by spoken words
  • Phonics – systematically mapping those speech sounds onto letters and letter combinations
  • Fluency – giving students extended practice for reading words so that they learn to read without a lot of effort and thus allowing them to devote their mental energy to the meaning of the text
  • Vocabulary – building student vocabulary, a skill closely associated with the final component
  • Comprehension – developing students’ understanding of what is being read to them and eventually what they will read themselves.

NCTQ further recommends that states adopt a four-pillar approach to ensuring reading success for their students. Those pillars include:

  1. Insisting that prep programs build teacher candidate knowledge – It is this pillar where states can make the most progress, as states have such clear oversight over teacher preparation programs through their program approval process, as well as by means of licensing tests.
  2. Recommend to school districts the best tools for assessing their students’ reading skills -States are in an ideal position to recommend to their districts high quality validated assessment tools as well as validated diagnostic surveys for use throughout elementary grades.
  3. Evaluate and recommend effective instructional materials – Teachers should not be expected to implement their own approach to teaching reading. They need experts to curate approaches, curricula, and materials that are research based, field-tested, and revised based on student performance.
  4. Give resources to districts that allow them to provide external supports to their classroom teachers in reading – Teachers need extra support to meet the needs of children who are learning to read, particularly for students who are really struggling or who may be dyslexic.

Hope in sight for Missouri

Thankfully, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced earlier this month that it had been awarded an $18 million grant to improve reading in the state over five years.

According to DESE the grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education for its Comprehensive Literacy State Development program, will address many of the issues raised by NCTQ.

According to DESE’s website, “The goal of the project is to support educators’ working knowledge of evidence-based literacy strategies to effectively teach reading and writing to all students. This includes providing professional development to pre-service teachers in institutions of higher education, early childhood education teachers and K-12 educators to enable them to provide effective instruction. This grant will additionally support districts with developing evidenced-based literacy plans to implement in their local schools and provide support for families.”

More work needed to secure long-term success

While the new grant and the changes it plans to implement are a wonderful move in the right direction, the Missouri legislature can do even more to ensure that our students have the foundation in reading that they need to succeed.

Check out our next blog to see how the state legislature can improve reading instruction in Missouri!

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