Literacy Legislation in Education: Align Policy with Practice
Our guest author is Jeanne Jeup, co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education and a former first-grade teacher.
Change starts at the top with legislation, a constant force shaping how teachers teach and students learn. Navigating the intricate path from the inception of legislation to its effective implementation within classrooms is a multifaceted and demanding endeavor. By nurturing collaboration among educators, administrators, and policymakers, a trickle-down effect is created that can successfully bridge the immense gap between policy and practice. The majority of states that enacted reading legislation in the past four years recognize the role of science and evidence in reading reform.
The legislative landscape in reading education is complex and multifaceted. Due to the combined efforts of educators, parents, and state leaders, there has been a movement toward science-based reading instruction. This push brought about an onslaught of legislation to address the persistent reading deficits of all American students, namely those living in poverty and those from black, brown, and indigenous communities who are disproportionately affected.
The journey of reading education legislation begins with policymakers and educational experts collaborating to draft bills and set expectations. Well-intentioned from the start, the challenge lies in ensuring that these laws, once passed, are effectively communicated and implemented throughout the education system at large. As these policies filter down through the layers of the education system, from the state level to the district level and finally to the classroom, interpretation and implementation can vary significantly. Without an educator on the local classroom level who can communicate and take ownership of the changes, legislation becomes just words on a page without being put into practice. This leads to a disconnect between the intent of the legislation and its real-world application through clear and actionable implementation solutions.
For example, during the 2021 Legislative Session, Louisiana lawmakers passed Act 108, which requires early literacy training for all K-3 math, reading, science, and/or social studies teachers and principals and assistant principals of schools that include the K-3 grade levels. Years after this policy was enacted, some affected teachers were left confused about what was required of them. Although the policy was extended to all districts, and the state had established guidelines for district implementation, some districts opted not to involve teachers or seek their input in the comprehensive training rollout. As a result, many students did not receive the quality reading education they deserved or required.
To truly succeed and bring about the desired results, these revolutionary reading policies require a top-down transformation within the education system. It's imperative that district leaders, superintendents, and school boards not only comprehend but also wholeheartedly embrace legislative requirements. This entails providing the essential funding, training, and support for teachers to effectively implement these changes in their classrooms.
However, the varying levels of understanding among administrators and district leaders across the district are a critical concern. While teachers are expected to adopt these new policies, administrators may receive disparate levels of training and education regarding the legislative implications. This discrepancy puts administrators, teachers, and schools at a disadvantage. Bridging this knowledge gap is crucial to ensure the effective implementation of policies and to provide the necessary support teachers require.
At the end of the funnel, there are the educators—the lifeblood of the education system. They are on the frontlines, directly providing students with the knowledge they need to advance in their educational careers. As in the case of Act 108 in Louisiana, too many teachers are finding themselves without access to the knowledge of how to make the necessary changes spelled out in legislation to improve reading instruction positively. Despite the challenges, there are always success stories to celebrate – and many aren’t sitting on their laurels waiting for legislation to make changes at the local level. Districts that have successfully embraced legislative changes, such as Hancock County, KY, and Grand Rapids, MN, serve as examples to follow in action and execution.
Hancock County began with a commitment to professional development for teachers through IMSE-run teacher training, resulting in a district-wide shift towards explicit and systematic instruction. Two years into Hancock County’s literacy transformation, the Kentucky Department of Education began to take steps toward mandating the Science of Reading. Since then, more than 20 counties have come to Hancock to observe their methods, making them a model in the state. Similarly, Grand Rapids saw a need for improved literacy instruction and also implemented extensive IMSE teacher training. Today, all teachers in the district have been trained in IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham, rooted in the Science of Reading. Since the training, the district's literacy proficiency level has risen an average of 16% for grades K-5. Additionally, at each grade level, the number of students at high risk in literacy proficiency has been reduced throughout the district. These districts demonstrate that change is possible with strong leadership support and a commitment to student success.
The journey from legislative inception to effective classroom instruction is complex and challenging. By fostering collaboration between educators, administrators, and policymakers, we can bridge the gap between legislation and its impact at the ground level to ensure that every child receives the high-quality education they deserve and comes out of the system knowing how to read.
For these revolutionary reading policies to truly succeed and bring about the desired results, change must begin at the highest levels of the education system. District leaders, superintendents, and school boards must not only understand but also fully embrace legislative requirements by providing the necessary funding, training, and support for teachers to implement these changes in their classrooms.
The varying levels of understanding among administrators and district leaders across the district is just as critical. While teachers are expected to implement new policies, administrators may sometimes receive a different level of training and education regarding the implications of legislation, putting administrators, teachers, and schools at a disadvantage. Bridging this gap is crucial to ensuring that policies are effectively implemented, and teachers receive the support they need.