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Richard Innes: Is a successful conclusion to the Reading Wars beginning in Kentucky?

It’s no secret that ineffective instruction of reading in the nation’s public school system is a major problem, one Kentucky regrettably shares. In the last pre-pandemic administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 35% of Kentucky’s fourth grade public school students tested at the proficient level. For Kentucky’s Black fourth grade students, NAEP reported only 14% met the standard for proficiency.

Even worse, the 2019 NAEP Grade 4 Reading Assessment indicates that a third of all of Kentucky’s fourth graders and over 50% of the state’s Black students don’t have even a partial mastery of this essential skill. These students will be very seriously challenged in their attempts to complete their education.

Based on NAEP information, Kentucky’s KPREP testing results and 2019 end-of-year enrollment figures for the state’s public school system, I estimated in a recent Bluegrass Institute report, “What Milton Wright knew about reading instruction, but lots of teachers apparently don’t,” that about 200,000 Bluegrass State K-12 students out of a total enrollment of 648,000 are in serious trouble with reading.

Richard Innes

This is happening because many Kentucky teachers haven’t been properly prepared to teach reading in accordance with what scientific research shows works best. Aside from the obvious evidence of problems in the NAEP results, a 2020 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality says that among the five essential elements required for strong reading programs – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension – on average, Kentucky’s college-based teacher preparation programs only are covering three.

But better answers are available.

Research discussed in the year 2000 National Reading Panel report and in more recent, very scientific studies using tools like functional MRI technology, as well as evidence from actual practice – including in a handful of schools here in Kentucky – show that when students get proper instruction, many – even those in poverty – avoid any need for remedial activities. Other students more challenged by reading also do better when first exposed to a proper start and then given special assistance that employs what really works.

So, Kentucky doesn’t have to settle for the current situation.

In fact, a new Kentucky Department of Education effort known as Reading Academies, enabled by state Sen. Stephen West’s Senate Bill 9 that provides $22 million for sustainability and augmented by $10 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) will bring better training to teachers all across Kentucky.

Phase 1 of the Reading Academies, which just launched in late August, includes more than 2,000 Kentucky elementary educators who volunteered for this two-year effort. This includes teachers from at least 123 districts across the state. They will learn powerful tools and gain a much better understanding of how the brain works while reading thanks to a remarkable professional development effort called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). Mississippi – yes, Mississippi – has used LETRS since the 2014-15 school year, enabling that state to post the most remarkable reading improvement of all on the 2019 NAEP, in the process moving notably ahead of Kentucky in fourth-grade reading performance for both white and Black students.

So, Kentucky does have a serious reading problem, but it doesn’t have to remain this way – if the state’s teachers recognize they need the free help the Reading Academies now offer and join up to help all of Kentucky’s students to move ahead.

There’s a lot more to the Reading Academies story, and one place to find that information is the dedicated Kentucky Department of Education website for the Reading Academies.

Richard G. Innes is an education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at dinnes@freedomkentucky.com.

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