As we enter the back-to-school season, there’s always a sense of excitement for kids to see their friends and relief for parents to have their children out of the house. There should also be a sense of trepidation for parents because there is a literacy crisis unfolding in America and the two years of learning disruptions poured fuel on an already burning fire.
Pandemic-related learning loss is real, and it compounds the reality that our nation was facing serious issues in our education system before school closures and forced at-home learning.
Immediately prior to the pandemic, in 2019, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, commonly known as America’s Report Card, found only 35% of fourth-graders were rated “proficient or advanced” and 65% were rated either “basic or below basic” on reading scores.
Make no mistake, this self-inflicted wound is a crisis of our own making. Policymakers and education leaders have gotten lazy and, in some cases, enacted policies that do the opposite to help students. Earlier this year, I wrote about Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s ill-advised decision to sign a law allowing kids to graduate high school even if they can’t read or do math. While this effort to socially promote students should artificially increase Oregon’s graduation scores, it’s at the expense of students who will leave high school without the skills to succeed.
It’s not just Oregon and a dumbing down of expectations. Teachers throughout the country continue to use methods that are outdated and known to not work, but it’s how they were trained. The most famous of these is known as “3-cueing.” It’s a method where teachers “teach” reading by letting students guess words three times before they are just told the word. There is ample evidence 3-cueing doesn’t work and shouldn’t be used. But this model continues to be used throughout the country.
Student achievement depends on investing in research-based early literacy policy and raising, not lowering, expectations.
But when our schools continue to rely on the “guessing method” or advance students to the next grade who are not ready or hand them a diploma knowing they can’t read, there are real life consequences. Sadly, it’s not a secret that students who fail to learn to read at grade level by third-grade face immense challenges. The Anne E. Casey Foundation found those students are four times more likely to drop out of school. And students who drop out of school are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. An estimated 85% of juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate, and another report found 80% of adult inmates were illiterate.
There is hope and ample proof that when states enact evidence-based, science-of-reading policies student outcomes improve.
The principles were developed pre-pandemic and have never been more important. They’ve been implemented in states across the country, including in Mississippi, which in the 2019 Nation’s Report Card showed the greatest reading gains of any state. Mississippi third-graders did not lose much ground on the state assessment post pandemic, which they credit to the foundational literacy policy that was in place well before learning disruptions swept the country in 2020 and 2021.
Tennessee’s Learning Loss and Acceleration Act, which was implemented immediately after it was passed, found students making gains during their four and six-week summer program.
Teachers in these and other states used a variety of interventions. They had access to literacy coaches, and the states require individual reading plans for each student to identify reading challenges that require intervention. These interventions can include additional one-on-one support, small-group instruction or support delivered through online programs.
This year, 15 states took big and small steps in the direction of enacting or improving early literacy programs, enacting science-of-reading curricula. It’s not enough to pass laws. Faithful implementation of early literacy policies is the gateway to helping students unlock their full potential.
As Time magazine just reported, many schools continue to embrace methods that are simply failing students. As one teacher explained, an effort to ditch evidence-based practices for a more progressive curriculum “has been an unmitigated disaster.”
As with any man-made crisis, the solutions are within our grasp but require policymakers to step up and parents to speak up. This fall, I urge education leaders and policymakers across the country to enact science-of-reading policies. And every parent, especially those with young children, should ask — or, dare I say, demand — to know whether their students are being taught how to read through phonics and other evidence-based practices or the outdated “guessing method” that’s proven to fail far too many kids.
Together, we can overcome this crisis, teach every child to read and help the rising generation reach their full potential.
Jeb Bush was the 43rd governor of Florida. He is founder and chairman of ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action.