This post originally appeared as commentary on Getting Smart in June 2019.
Here’s a hard fact: A staggering 60 percent of fourth grade students in the United States are struggling to read. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one-third of fourth-graders and one quarter of eighth-graders aren’t reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced. These numbers are even more concerning when we look at the significant proficiency gaps based on race and income and we realize that these gaps have barely moved in the past 25 years.
Emily Hanford’s expansive coverage of this issue in “Hard Words – Why aren’t kids being taught to read” has spurred a national conversation on the “right” way to teach reading. In story after story after story, we’re hearing the complex challenges teachers are facing in helping students to become proficient readers with a focus on the need for stronger training and professional development. And while this op-ed in Education Week started to touch on the important role instructional materials play in this conversation, curriculum has largely been ignored.
We believe materials matter. Research shows that students primarily learn through their interactions with teachers and content. Our organization, EdReports.org, provides free reviews of K-12 English language arts (ELA), math and science programs with a laser focus on the important role of curriculum and why instructional materials need to be aligned to high-quality standards.
High-quality ELA materials should reflect the same research underpinnings as college-and career-readiness standards and the research about how students learn how to read. For example, the teaching of foundational skills across grades K-5 should follow a research-based progression and build skills such as phonics and word recognition to support students as they grow into increasingly sophisticated readers.
College and career-ready standards in the majority of states emphasize the importance of these skills—and our review rubric does the same. If K-5 materials do not have strong foundational skills components, even if the materials perform well in all other areas, they will not advance through our review process and will be disqualified from meeting our expectations to college and career-ready standards. That’s how much we prioritize foundational skills. We know if kids do not gain reading proficiency early on, it makes the acquisition of any other content that follows far more difficult.
Further, aligned materials help reduce the burden on teachers to search for unvetted materials online. We know that teachers working in schools that have a high proportion of students who receive free and reduced lunch are searching for materials online at higher rates. We also know that the assignments teachers select or create tend to be lower quality than what the district or state provides. Starting with quality means not only giving teachers back valuable time, but it also helps to ensure that the quality of education does not vary from lesson to lesson and classroom to classroom. Aligned materials leave less to chance and help level the playing field.
And let’s be crystal clear—the consequences of not receiving strong reading instruction are huge. If students do not build foundational skills in grades K-5, this has ripple effects across multiple subjects. Students are not only shut out of English language arts, but they are also unable to access other content areas including science, math and social studies.
We can start to change these results—not with a single, silver bullet—but by providing teachers with high quality, aligned materials and professional learning to know why these materials are good for kids and how to use them. Only by empowering teachers with these essential tools can districts support the kind of reading instruction that’s showing results for all students: daily, explicit phonics instruction as part of a strong foundational skills program, access to complex text that builds knowledge and questions and tasks grounded in evidence from those texts.
It’s also important to not simply hand teachers new materials but to support them in using those materials. A recent study from Harvard Center for Education Policy Research found that on average teachers receive less than two days of professional learning around new materials. If a teacher has never received opportunities to gain knowledge in foundational skills and is offered either cursory or non-existent professional learning, it won’t matter what was adopted. The materials will stay on the shelf and students will continue to fall behind. Materials and professional development must work hand-in-hand to support teachers and strong instruction.
Reading is the foundation of all other learning. We cannot continue to allow students to reach high school unable to read, especially when we have the knowledge and the tools to make a difference. We must work together to empower teachers with high-quality content and professional learning opportunities to ensure these tools come alive in the classroom. Only then can districts support the kind of reading instruction that helps all students succeed in school and beyond.