Sixth in a series of articles intended to make the contents of the Arkansas LEARNS Act accessible to the ordinary reader.
Section 29 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act demonstrates the extent to which straightforward beginning reading instruction in the uses of the alphabet has been transformed into an arcane science. It’s also an example of magical thinking.
At a time when teachers are leaving the profession and undergraduates are avoiding teacher preparation, Arkansas legislators have drafted a law that calls for an army of literacy coaches with amazing abilities.
First, the literacy coach “must be available to every K-3 teacher in schools that have earned D or F.
As pointed out in the first article in this series, 32% of Arkansas public schools received a D or F rating and 42% of Arkansas charter schools received a D or F rating in the 2021-2022 school year. At one coach per school, we will need 375 literacy coaches who “must have, without limitation”:
- expertise in both pedagogy and the science of reading
- evidence of success in coaching and classroom instruction
- an understanding of learning disabilities in reading
NOTE: Teachers in low supply in Arkansas and the nation include teachers of special education.
Literacy coach job description
Now, what is the job description for these experts in the “science of reading”?
They shall (remember, in legalese, shall means must):
- leverage knowledge of evidence-based instruction and practices aligned to the science of reading to support teachers in maximizing student learning
NOTE: What exactly leverage is supposed to mean here puzzles me. According to my dictionary, the term is related to economics:
leverage (verb): to lever; specifically, to speculate or cause to speculate financially on borrowed capital expecting profits made to be greater than the interest payable.
I suppose it means that the literacy coach is supposed to show teachers how to improve their students’ reading ability.
Going on, the literacy coach shall
- engage in instructional coaching cycles with teachers to build capacity for classroom instructional practice
- deliver consistent and frequent job-embedded professional learning
- design and facilitate relevant and cohesive professional learning sessions to strengthen the implementation of evidence-based instructional practices aligned to the science of reading with teachers
- assist teachers in analyzing data to inform instructional adjustments
- partner with teachers to integrate professional learning into classroom practice
- work with teachers to ensure effective commuication strategies and resource sharing with parents
- partner with a public school principal or designated leader to connect school-wide literacy goals with evidence-based instruction and practices aligned to the science of reading shall provide feedback on teachers’ instruction to be used for evaluations
- participate in professional learning experiences to deepen knowledge and skills for coaching
- develop an individual reading plan for each K-3 student who does not meet the reading standard
What if these experts cannot be found among Arkansas teachers? No problem. They may be contracted from some outside commercial educational agency.
Literacy Coach and Tutor Compensation
Literacy coaches shall be compensated “on a competitive salary schedule” to be determined by the Department of Education.
They shall “receive a yearly bonus of up to ten thousand dollars based on measurable performance outcomes.”
As a part of their duty to develop individual reading plans for every K-3 student who is not learning to read in the classroom, literacy coaches are authorized to arrange for “high-dosage tutoring,” either online or in-person, to be provided by “state-approved providers” or “evidence-based digital literacy apps, or software programs.”
These resources are to be paid for from a “literacy tutoring grant program” to the amount of $500 per student, per year. The tutors hired shall have been “trained in the science of reading and hold:
- valid teaching certificates in either elementary education or reading, or
- baccalaureate or graduate degrees in education, English, or another subject area indicative of expertise in reading and literacy.”
The outside service providers have two years to prove their effectiveness.
The reality of effective reading instruction
“Leveraging” or otherwise effecting a transition for teachers from “whole word” thinking to synthetic phonics instruction is not going to be quick or easy.
The effort to undermine and eliminate the phonics method of reading instruction began in 1927. Since then, under a series of names, reading instruction as sanctioned by teachers’ colleges like that of Columbia, have created millions of crippled readers. Now, at last, after decades of the establishment’s insistence that phonics instruction is “too boring” and not “creative” enough, the institutions that created the nation’s reading crisis have reversed course. The humble term “phonics instruction” has been replaced by a much more impressive term: the science of reading.
The “new” method is still making its way into teacher-preparation programs. In 2013, only 35% of teacher training programs had courses in the “Science of Reading.” In 2019, the percentage had risen to 50% or so.
Of currently employed elementary teachers, some 65% have had little experience in teaching systematic phonics. They will not be able to adapt overnight.
As far back as the 1970s, when I first became interested in the so-called “reading wars,” I sat in on some whole-word workshops. The instruction for the teachers was emotion-laden, not evidence-based. Instead of defining skills and showing teachers how to provide children with the information and skills needed to read a word, whole-word advocates emphasized the role of the teacher in “enabling” the children to intuit the necessary information. Teachers were told to do most of the work—reading to the children, writing down their stories for them and, later, when the children were asked to write, interpreting their “invented spelling.“
Effecting change in teachers who were taught to regard whole-word instruction as a sacred mission will not be easy.
Also in Section 29
This section calls for the creation of an Education Ombudsman “to assist in the enforcement of Section 29.” The minimum qualification for this position is an “M.A. in Education or related field.” Current or former superintendents need not apply. This ombudsman seems to share several of the duties of the literacy coach, only not nearly as many.
The complications of requiring children to remain in Third Grade until they have mastered reading are also addressed.
A good-cause exemption for promotion shall be limited to the following students:
- limited English proficiency students who have had less than three years of instruction in an English language learner program
- students with a disability who are not eligible for the alternate assessment and who have an individualized education program
- students who have received an intensive, evidence-based literacy intervention program aligned to the science of reading for more than two years
- students who were previously retained in earlier grades.
Special provisions for promoted students lacking proficiency
The school must provide at least ninety minutes of evidence-based literacy instruction aligned to the science of reading during each school day
The school must assign the student to a teacher with a *value-added model score (VAM) in the top quartile statewide in English language arts for the past three years.
What if the school does not have a teacher with the desired *VAM?
They can “assign the student to a teacher: (i) With a highly-effective rating according to the Teacher Excellence and Support System, § 6-17-2801 et seq., where possible; or (ii) Deemed to be a high-performing teacher as defined by a Master Professional Educator designation.”
The school shall also provide parents with a “read-at-home” plan. Parents of these students may apply for a literacy tutoring grant.
The requirements of Section 29 are unrealistic in terms of staffing and questionable in terms of funneling tax money to commercial educational service providers.
It seems to me that children would be better served with a simpler approach to the improvement of beginning reading instruction.
If I were in charge, I would reduce the list of thirty-three state-approved reading programs to three or four proven methods, such as Spalding or Open Court.
Then, I would bring in people trained in the methods to provide instruction for Arkansas teachers.
I would involve all teachers, not only language arts teachers, in the effort to rectify the sad state of partially literate school children, K-12. I would require all teachers of all subjects to model standard spoken English in their classes and require any written work they assign to conform to standard grammar and spelling.
NOTE: Writers in the media seem to have little understanding of how US reading instruction reached its present nadir. For example, a recent article on PBS begins with this sentence:
Move over “Dick and Jane.” A different approach to teaching kids how to read is on the rise.
Dick and Jane have moved over several times since the 1950s.
For an excellent overview of the march from Dick and Jane to the Science of Reading, see A Brief History of Reading Instruction by Stephen Parker.