Schools know how to  teach children to read, right? Every child learns to read, right? Well, “No,” according to recent data collected as a required component of the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development (READ) Act.

Cathy Lines

The READ Act was passed by the Colorado legislature in 2012 amid high acclaim and bipartisan support. The law focuses on improving kindergarten through third-grade students’ reading proficiency and especially those who struggle the most, those identified as having a significant reading deficiency.

According to the 2017 data, 15.5 percent of kindergarten through third graders were identified with a significant reading deficiency, worse than the 14.4 percent seen in 2014, the first implementation year. Only 40 percent of the state’s third graders are proficient in reading. And the cost has been $231 million through 2017.

When the READ Act legislation was crafted, significant emphasis was placed on the importance of research and data, two important anchors that should lead to effective educational change.

Specifically, evidence-based or scientifically based reading assessments to be used by school districts are identified by the Colorado Department of Education and approved by the State Board.

Continuously collected data from the chosen assessments are to guide instruction, then interventions and READ Plan development when there is a significant reading deficiency. A regularly updated advisory list of evidence-based or scientifically based instructional programming in reading is provided by the Colorado Department of Education.

Family participation in their children’s learning, repeatedly shown to be effective in facilitating achievement, is mandated in the Act.

Why is the READ Act failing?

A law is only as good as its implementation and enforcement. Reports and articles have offered hypotheses: Fund mismanagement? Use of outdated and ineffective instructional materials and techniques? Inadequate accountability? School district local control? Poorly prepared teachers? Changing data submission? All most likely play a part. The answer is elusive.

One component of the Act seems to be producing positive results, offering some possible clues. The Early Literacy Grant is a competitive grant program for schools with high rates of students with significant reading deficiencies.

Schools must use evidence-based or scientifically based reading interventions approved by the state. The state monitors monetary, assessment and instruction requirements closely. A state consultant helps coordinate efforts. The general READ Act implementation does not apply this same level of rigor and support.

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The key to improvement is a pervasive practice shift in instructional knowledge, attitude and behaviors; this must be combined with a passionate, unswerving focus on learning to read as a priority for every child.

Evidence-based or scientifically based is a relatively new concept in education. There is a proven science of effectiveness in this case for teaching reading. It is not about philosophy or beliefs or political choice or what people like because it has been done before. It is what works.

Doctors are sued for malpractice if they fail to implement the most proven science; patients can die or become worse. Architects and engineers lose their licenses if they don’t build to code, following the most effective and mandated protocols; buildings and bridges crumble.

And who wants to fly on a plane when the pilot is doing what he thinks he likes, instead of following the required procedures and hasn’t been regularly trained, re-trained?

For the READ Act to succeed, the reading instruction pervasive practice shift must be consistently executed in each of the following arenas: educator preparation and staff development programs; individual professor/instructor course content; local school board oversight; administrator supervision; teacher daily instruction; and family support strategies.

Here are four concrete suggestions to support this pervasive practice shift. Some might require funding, some might be doable with existing resources. All would be cost-effective investments.

Develop Effective Accountability. Require ongoing, specific reporting of school practices, programs, and interventions. Continuously analyze these data, responsively changing implementation as indicated. The READ Act repeatedly cites the importance of evidence-based or scientifically based assessment and instruction and provides funding. The Colorado Department of Education provides current information on most effective proven practices. Yet it is not known how districts are assessing and teaching reading, if they are using their funding for evidence-based or scientifically based assessment and instruction.

Ensure Trained Teachers. Ask the question and find the answers. Mandate consistent training and demonstrated teacher proficiency. Use identified information to guide and confirm each pre-service and practicing  educator is receiving the specific, needed knowledge and instructional skills for teaching evidence-based or scientifically based reading. Think about doctors, engineers, and pilots.

Guarantee Families Participate. Know how families are involved in READ Plan implementation. Ask what is needed to ensure genuine partnership. When families authentically share in their children’s learning, children achieve at a higher level. This is especially important for children with significant reading deficiencies who are often learning English or facing poverty or experiencing special needs.

Market the READ Act. Reach out to businesses, community centers, libraries,  foundations, lawmakers, and shout the message: Read by Third Grade, Every Colorado Child. Get everyone involved; everyone has a stake in this. The results are clear. Companies will have more literate employees; prison numbers will drop; graduation rates will increase; post-secondary education will see more prepared students and diversity; poverty/public assistance will decrease.

What is the Ultimate Question? What would YOU say to a 21-year-old Colorado native who reads at the second-grade level and comes to you with this question, “If you knew what worked in teaching kids to read and you didn’t do it, why not? What were you thinking? What about me?”

Dr. Cathy Lines is a retired school and licensed psychologist. She worked in public schools, a university, and as a consultant during her 40 professional years. She advocated for the passage of the READ Act in 2012 as an independent practitioner, specifically supporting the evidence-based components of the Act.

Cathy Lines

Special to The Colorado Sun