Reading Emphasis Helps States Exceed Pre-Pandemic Performance

In 2019, Westcliffe Elementary in Greenville, South Carolina, received troubling news: It was one of 265 schools in the state where more than a third of third graders failed to meet literacy standards, according to an article in The 74 newsletter.

Teachers in those schools received two years of training in what’s known as the science of reading and use a new curriculum with explicit phonics instruction. Seventy-five percent of third graders met the goal this year, with similar improvement in fourth and fifth grades.

“We are encouraged to see some states surpassing 2019,” said economist Emily Oster, who leads Brown University’s COVID-19 School Data Hub.“This suggests substantial recovery is possible, and it provides an opportunity for learning.”

She said it’s “crucial” to understand what those states have done right.

In Iowa, more than 80 percent of schools offered in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year, according to state officials. In January of 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law mandating that schools offer families in-person learning five days a week.

In the other states, leaders overhauled the way students learn to read, a shift that is now showing up in test results. South Carolina and Mississippi were among the first states to adopt reform efforts that included a strong emphasis on foundational reading skills.

South Carolina assigned reading specialists to schools that needed to improve, like Westcliffe. And it gave districts a list of recommended curricula. Greenville chose a program from Savvas Learning Company, which Jeff McCoy, the district’s associate superintendent for academics, described as more “scripted” than the district’s prior approach.

“We recognized that phonics was a missing component,” he said.

The 2023-24 state budget passed this year included $39 million to make a highly regarded training course — Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling — available to all K-3 teachers. 

Josh Crosson, executive director of EdAllies in Minneapolis, thinks the READ Act is a step forward, but doesn’t do enough to integrate literacy training and teacher preparation. 

“I don’t think we’re going to see improved outcomes in these first couple months,” he said. “I think we’re going to see improved outcomes in the next few years.”

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