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Leading Large-Scale Improvement in Literacy Achievement

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April 12, 2016 11:15 am


The inclusion of the Literacy for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 provides an enormous opportunity for states and districts to address the national literacy crisis. Leadership at the federal, state, and local levels is imperative to ensure that the nation’s students graduate from high school with the skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and the workforce. Results from the most recent administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card, show though that students’ literacy skills continue to lag. More than 60 percent of eighth graders and 60 percent of twelfth graders scored below the “proficient” level in reading achievement on NAEP. In fact, during the past four decades, the literacy performance of seventeen-year-olds on NAEP has remained flat.

Even more disturbing, NAEP results reveal that almost half of students of color and students from low-income families enter fifth grade with skills below the “basic” level on NAEP. These outcomes mean that millions of young people lack the rudimentary reading skills to locate relevant information or make simple inferences. Without these essential literacy skills, students are more likely to be retained in school, drop out of high school, become teen parents, or enter the juvenile justice system. Meanwhile, without advanced literacy skills, such as the ability to read complex text and write argumentative essays, young Americans are at risk for being locked out of the middle class and working predominantly in low-wage jobs. The consequences for the individuals and the costs to the nation are staggering in terms of the billions of dollars in wages and earnings lost over a lifetime.

Implementing a literacy program that begins in early childhood and continues through high school offers the best hope for improving student literacy based on evidence from the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) program, the federal pilot based on the tenets of LEARN. Like SRCL, the newly-authorized LEARN program provides competitive state grants to implement a birth-through-grade-twelve literacy program. The goal is to develop all students’ reading and writing proficiency by providing high-quality classroom literacy instruction as well as a continuum of interventions and support for students with or at risk for reading failure. Implementing a comprehensive literacy program across the grade spans and ensuring consistent use of evidence-based reading and writing instructional strategies poses an enormous challenge. While expectations for all students have changed, the underlying systems for developing teachers and improving instructional practice at scale have not.

The realities of student reading difficulties and teachers’ lack of preparation to address them have been well documented. Many secondary teachers, for example, lack the knowledge and skills to interact with students in ways that deepen their understanding of a subject through strategic reading. Fortunately, the LEARN Act connects policy and practice more directly and powerfully by investing in the knowledge and skills of educators to integrate discussion, reading, and writing as foundational to learning content. LEARN’s tenets emphasize building educators’ expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, data analysis to diagnose students’ literacy needs, and implementation of evidence-based strategies to improve students’ skills in reading to learn content. Authorized funds also provide support for high-quality professional development for teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel to improve literacy instruction for struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.

Scaling effective literacy instruction requires district and school leaders to create an infrastructure and a consistent set of processes to develop teachers’ literacy practices. School leaders must transform schools into organizations that facilitate systemwide collaborative learning among practitioners. Research shows that principals influence teachers and teaching practice by creating a professional learning culture that fosters the expertise and influence of all educators on a wide basis. High-leverage reading and writing strategies, for example, become more precise and more embedded when they are designed and used by teams of educators who continuously refine those strategies based on their impact on students across the school.

“To attain district goals for improving literacy achievement, all teachers, including new staff, must possess the willingness to step beyond their individual classrooms and content areas to participate in learning communities with their colleagues to create unified literacy and learning experiences for … students,’’ says Cheryl Walters, superintendent of Derry Area School District. This district is one of fifty-four in Pennsylvania that received a five-year grant as part of Pennsylvania’s SRCL program.

State, district, and school leaders collectively must confront the enormity of the college- and career-readiness gap by improving literacy instruction and learning for all students. Including LEARN in ESSA offers sustained funding to implement comprehensive literacy programs from birth through grade twelve. Funding alone, though, will not create well-designed literacy programs aligned with content standards. Schools also need strong leadership to frame a vision of literacy as central to improving schools and student achievement and to establish a sense of shared responsibility for ensuring that all students read and write proficiently.

Mariana Haynes, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Alliance.

Every Student Succeeds Act

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