Claire Fiddian-Green is the President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
Earlier this year, results from the 2019 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also referred to as “The Nation’s Scorecard”) were released and revealed the following discouraging news: average reading scores of fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders in the U.S. declined from prior NAEP assessments in all three grade levels and remain troublingly low. Overall, only 35 percent of fourth-grade students, 34 percent of eighth-grade students and 37 percent of twelfth-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level on the national reading assessment in 2019.
The latest NAEP results are similar to Indiana’s pre-pandemic, 2019 ILEARN scores, which found that 46 percent of fourth-graders and 51 percent of eight–graders are proficient in English Language Arts, or ELA (which covers reading along with other skills). Both the state and national assessment results highlight the urgent need to ensure that children know how to read by the end of third grade. Without this fundamental ability, students will struggle to succeed in school and also following graduation. Two new reports identify root causes that – if addressed – could help improve reading outcomes for America’s students, including students in Indiana.
First, we need to examine how teachers-in-training are being prepared to instruct children how to read. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)’s 2020 Teacher Prep Review report points to the fact that, nationwide, only 51 percent of traditional elementary teacher preparation programs cover the five cornerstones of early reading. Although this is an improvement from 35 percent in 2013, still, the fact that only half of teacher prep programs in the U.S. ensure aspiring teachers have learned about the core components of the science of reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – is concerning and merits close scrutiny. In Indiana, just 16 of our state’s 34 teacher preparation programs scored an A or B on NCTQ’s scoring rubric for early reading instruction for aspiring teachers. Indiana should take a closer look at these findings, and also track the impact of graduates from our state’s teacher prep programs on student learning outcomes. Are the children who learn in classrooms where teachers were taught the science of reading performing better than the state average when it comes to reading proficiency? Should our state ensure all of its teacher prep programs are aligned with evidence-based practices when it comes to preparing teachers how to instruct young children how to read? These are critical questions parents, schools, employers and other community stakeholders should be asking.
Second, we should ensure teachers have the flexibility to try new ways of helping their students develop reading comprehension skills. For example, a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that the common practice of incorporating a two-hour “literacy block” into schools’ daily schedules has not translated into better reading outcomes for students. Instead, the report finds that increased instructional time in social studies – NOT extra time spent on ELA – is associated with improved reading ability. The report recommends that schools free up time for daily social studies instruction by reducing time devoted to ELA. For example, schools could add in 30 minutes per day of history, civics and geography by reducing daily literacy blocks to 90 minutes. While the study is not causal, it does make the important point that what we have been doing thus far hasn’t moved the needle on student reading outcomes. This begs the question: shouldn’t we make room for innovation, measure the impact of new approaches, and see what the data tell us about optimal ways to ensure all children can read by the time they enter the fourth grade?
Much of our current attention is appropriately focused on grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, we should not lose sight of the poor reading outcomes that have plagued our schools for years. As a state and as a country, we should focus on identifying and quantifying root causes of poor reading outcomes and be transparent about what the data reveal. Only then can we focus on implementing improved approaches to addressing one of the core challenges facing elementary school children today: learning how to become a successful reader.