Right to Read or a Better Way?

HB 6620 entrusts literacy to a failed system

The “Right to Read” bill — HB 6620 section 1 — passed this session, represents a failure to think outside of the box in response to the literacy crisis in Connecticut.

“As measured before the pandemic in the statewide assessment of English Language Arts, nearly half of Connecticut’s public school students fell short of grade-level reading expectations, and outcomes were significantly lower for students of color,” according to State Senator Patricia Billie Miller.

Connecticut is not alone in its literacy crisis. On June 11, 2021, the Economist reported that “Less than half (48%) of all American adults were proficient readers in 2017. American fourth graders (nine-to ten-year olds) rank 15th on the Progress in International Literacy Study, an international exam. And that was before covid-19 closed schools.”

“Right to Read” attempts to solve this problem by ramping up state oversight. It places all decisions regarding reading instruction in the hands of the newly established Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success (CLRRS). 

Rather than helping families, churches, schools, and the state to work together to address the root causes of illiteracy, “Right to Read” proponents would instead end that collaboration by taking the entire responsibility for solving the crisis and giving it to high-level academics and politicians.

As I have written before, if the current crisis in education shows us anything, it is that teachers and parents simply want to get back to basics, and reading is truly the most basic skill of an educated person. 

The bill mandates that “Not later than July 1, 2022, the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, established pursuant to section 9 of this act, shall approve at least five reading curriculum models or programs to be implemented by local and regional boards of education in accordance with the provisions of section 1 of this act.”

But limiting schools to five choices for reading curriculum — while adding the administrative oversight and paperwork that accompany all regulation — strips teachers and children of the individual creativity that can turn a solid reading program into a society of citizens who read for pleasure and information. 

Nowhere on the center’s site itself can a parent or teacher find an explanation of what phonics approach, curriculum, or even classroom methodology will turn the state’s literacy crisis around. There are many references to “evidence-based” practices, “data-driven instruction,” “leadership building,” and the qualifications of its experts, but no articulation of what those practices will look like in the day-to-day classroom.

A rabbit trail of links leads to two regional literacy organizations, HILL for Literacy and Literacy How, which are partnered with the CLRRS. The organizations base their blend phonics instruction with a variety of classroom methods and offer training on the five essential components of reading required by Section 1: “Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and reading fluency, including oral skills and reading comprehension.” 

These blended practices and the National Reading Panel’s five components, however, are already being used in the American public school system with no apparent positive effect on overall literacy. In fact, according to a 2019 national study by EdWeek, 72% of elementary teachers reported that their schools were already using a blend of phonics and whole language practices to solidify the five components of reading as outlined in Section 1. 

71% of veteran teachers (those with 20 or more years of experience) support their schools’ blended literacy philosophy, in contrast to the only 46% of teachers with less than 10 years experience. The study does not indicate what alternatives younger teachers are looking for, but a possible interpretation of the data is that younger teachers see that the balanced literacy approach (which has been in debate since the 1990’s) has not improved America’s literacy rates but rather correlates to a decline in literacy.

It is difficult, however, to assign blame wholly to balanced literacy or any method at all. There are factors far beyond the National Reading Panel’s ken that affect literacy. Many of these factors — individual attention, personalized academic plans, customized classrooms, students’ sense of personal responsibility, a home culture enthusiastic for reading, limited access to screens and electronics — require a coordinated community response from multiple layers of social institutions. 

By taking the responsibility for educating children out of their hands, the state may relieve teachers of curriculum planning but will also burden them and limit their ability to respond with creativity and care to the students sitting next to them. For that reason, HB 6620 may have succeeded in the legislature, but it will fail in the classroom. 

The intentions may be noble, but the method has already failed. 

Our best teachers, given the best literacy programs, with the ideal number of students, will still be ineffective and frustrated if they do not have the freedom and flexibility to respond in the moment to students’ needs, personalities, and behaviors. If their classroom schedules are micromanaged down to the number of drills students must complete each week, tests they must take each month, and even how they are to define success, this bill will simply perpetuate the literacy crisis. 

The real solution is training teachers who are independent workers, can think on their feet, have the bandwidth and permission to do so, and who enjoy a culture of empowerment and openness rather than regulation.

Deregulation will inevitably mean that some teachers, given the freedom to be the primary educators of our students, might fail to do so. But increased regulation only guarantees that the teachers who could best succeed will fail or leave.

Erika Ahern is a writer and classical educator living in Hamden, CT. With her husband Todd, she homeschools her six children and runs Verity Ed, an education resource and consulting business.

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