The Story On State Literacy Initiatives

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million people) are illiterate or functionally illiterate. Nearly two-thirds of fourth grade students read below grade level, and that percentage persists all the way through high school graduation (Rea, 2021).

While these statistics are alarming, federal and state leaders have been focused on literacy rates for many years. The United States Department of Education (DOE) most recently addressed literacy through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, which “outlines a direct and sustained approach to improving literacy achievement” (Alliance for Excellence Education, 2017). Specifically, ESSA focuses on two components to support literacy: funding and professional development. For funding, Title II of ESSA includes the “Literacy Education for All, Results for a Nation” (LEARN) Act, which provides competitive grants to states to help local school districts develop comprehensive birth-through-grade-twelve literacy plans.

Additionally, the LEARN Act states that local education agencies must use any grant funds they receive to support high-quality professional development for teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel. However, ESSA also gives states new flexibility in choosing which indicators they use to measure student performance on state assessments in English Language Arts and Math, as well as how much emphasis to place on each of these measures (The Education Trust, 2017). As a result, literacy policies, laws, and initiatives vary greatly from state to state, given the flexibility permitted by ESSA.

Many states have used this increased flexibility to place their focus on early literacy and family engagement. While K-3 literacy has become the priority for several states, it is essential to acknowledge that secondary literacy is equally as important. According to Susan R. Goldman’s research on adolescent literacy, “Middle grades and high school teachers’ primary responsibility has been to teach content, de-emphasizing the literacy practices central to comprehending the content and thereby increasing the struggles of students who may not have learned to read adequately in the lower grades” (Goldman, 2012). Thus, states must also prioritize resources to support secondary teachers with literacy practices.

Further, as states continue to navigate best literacy practices, research has highlighted the importance of family engagement. According to the Harvard School Transition Study, “family involvement increases children's positive feelings about literacy, which in turn improves their literacy performance” (Weiss, 2008). Although several states acknowledge the powerful impact family engagement can have on literacy, others still need to prioritize this crucial component.

Finally, many states’ recent literacy initiatives coincide with troubling data on the subject. The biennial NAEP National Report Card released in 2019 showed that only one state, Mississippi, scored higher on fourth grade reading scores from the previous assessment year. When looking at the fourth grade average scores for the entire country, 16 states scored higher than the national average, 23 states scored similar to the national average, and 12 states scored below the national average. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated national literacy concerns. A Stanford study concluded that “students in first-through-fourth grades, in general, didn’t develop any reading skills during the spring of 2020 – growth stalled when schooling was interrupted and remained stagnant through the summer. It picked up in the fall of 2021, which is a huge testament to the work that educators did in preparing for the new school year and their creativity in coming up with ways to teach. However, the growth was not robust enough to make up for the gaps from the spring” (Spector, 2021).

Thus, in order for students to be successful readers, now and in the future, it is more important than ever that states commit to K-12 literacy practices and provide the necessary supports for families.

To learn more about what your state is doing to improve literacy, use this LINK to navigate to The State Literacy Infographic. This resource provides information on the latest literacy initiatives, policies, and laws in each state to help families support their child in and out of the classroom.

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