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Minnesota’s persistent literacy gap has lawmakers looking for ways to push evidence-based reading instruction

Minnesota has the widest gap in reading scores between white and nonwhite students in the nation.

A first-grade student at Prodeo Academy's St. Paul campus tapping out a word he's been asked to write during a routine literacy assessment.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Schools across the state closed down at the start of this week because of the extreme cold. It’s the right thing to do, so that kids aren’t being put at risk, said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. But he thinks there’s another issue affecting Minnesota students that deserves the same level of urgency and decisive action: reading proficiency rates that have remained stagnant for years, and have even decreased for some student groups.

“Minnesota has a state of emergency regarding literacy. I’m very disappointed with where we’re at right now with the persistent reading success gap between white students and students of color,” he said Wednesday. “We are not making adequate progress, and the future of tens of thousands of our students is seriously at risk if we don’t address this.”

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Third-grade reading skills are a critical benchmark for students’ future success. By the end of third grade, they should have the literacy skills they need to transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Yet according to the latest state assessments, only 56 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient in reading. That number has remained relatively flat for years. Broken down by race and special status, the proficiency rates are even more alarming: Minnesota now has the widest gap in reading scores between white and nonwhite students in the nation. Only 32 percent of black fourth-graders and 34 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared to 66 percent of white fourth-graders.

State Sen. Chuck Wiger

Serving as the ranking minority member of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, Wiger says there is strong bipartisan interest in looking at which evidence-based reading strategies are needed to move the needle. And progress on this front, he suspects, will require some legislative action this session. 

“Frankly, I think the governor should call a summit soon on this,” he said. “At least, through the legislative process, we can direct some action, for coming up with a plan to address this.”

Experts call for reforms

Earlier this week, members of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, heard from a number of Minnesota-based reading experts  — many of whom called for widespread early literacy instruction reforms needed at the district and school level.  

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During this information gathering session, the importance of implementing evidence-based reading instruction came up often. But even something as seemingly basic as reading instruction comes with political baggage.

At the peak of the so-called nationwide “reading war,” educators often fell into one of two camps: one that prioritized explicit phonics-based instruction; or another that prioritized exposure to good books and reading practice.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
A bounty of scientific research, however, has shown that kids cannot simply learn to read through exposure to books and story time. Rather, they need to be taught how to decode words, a skill that requires a strong foundation in phonics — being able to connect sounds with letters.

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a Minnesota educator who’d deny the importance of embedding some phonics-based instruction into reading lessons and curriculum. But there’s still no consensus on how much focus should be devoted to building students’ phonics skills — a variable that results in literacy instruction inconsistencies across districts, and even across grade levels within the same school.

Many of the experts convened to present on Monday support a more explicit phonics-based instruction approach to teaching reading. That includes leaders with The Reading Center and the Minnesota Reading Corps — two organizations that specialize in targeting reading interventions to students who struggle most with reading, including students with dyslexia.

Kathy Howe, a local reading expert called in to testify, raised concern over the “balanced literacy” approach used in most schools today.

What we see in observing balanced literacy classrooms is that sounding out words is de-emphasized. Rather students are encouraged to guess words based on pictures, context … this is not phonics, at all,” she said. “Balanced literacy has been the preferred reading instructional philosophy in most Minnesota K-3 classrooms, for several decades.”

Second graders doing a phonics-based literacy activitiy in Susie Hiemenz's classroom at Holy Spirit Catholic School in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Second-graders doing a phonics-based literacy activity in Susie Hiemenz's classroom at Holy Spirit Catholic School in St. Paul.
Howe talked about her work with the St. Croix River Education District, in which she helped restructure the elementary school’s approach to teaching reading to ensure phonics-based instruction sat at the core of each lesson. In many cases, it’s a commitment that requires a radical restructuring that involves buying new curriculum materials, leadership from the school board and principal, a new school schedule and staffing plan and additional professional development for educators. But it’s a reform that she insists needs to take place in schools across the state.

“It’s hard work. But there are people who have done it. Some of them are sitting here behind me,” she said, pointing out John Alexander, executive director of Groves Academy, which works with school districts to better implement phonics-based reading instruction.

Given the success in students’ reading scores in the districts his staff currently collaborate with, Alexander told committee members he hopes that the Minneapolis Public Schools district, the St. Paul Public Schools district and the Anoka-Hennepin Public School District “will take notice and do the restructuring necessary” to boost literacy scores through more explicit phonics-based instruction as well.

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Legislators weigh in

During the hearing on Monday, Nelson voiced her own frustrations with reading proficiency rates in Minnesota.

“Why is it that we’ve been talking about the importance of early reading since I came to the Senate in 2011?” she said. “We’ve had years now, yet we’re not seeing the return on investment. Most importantly, we are turning out students who — 20 percent of them — do go to college needing remedial work. We’re turning out students who don’t have the necessary reading skills to get the further education, career training that they need.”

In an interview after the hearing, she expressed an interest in possibly taking legislative action to ensure all reading instructors are employing evidence-based practices. One has to wonder if, in fact, our persistent and rather stagnant reading gap might possibly be because we haven’t been laser focused on these evidence-based, scientific strategies that really encompass the strategy of learning to read,” she said.

Reflecting on her own experience as a reading specialist in a Minnesota school, she recalled working with a group of first-graders who were taught in phonics-based reading. The next year, that same group of kids had a whole-language teacher. And for their third-grade year, reading instruction included a mix of strategies.

“I thought, ‘It’s really hard for these kids,’” she said. “Where is the scope and sequence?”

In terms of teacher licensure, Nelson indicated she’s interested in revisiting a gap that currently exists in licensure criteria. Nearly a decade ago, based on recommendations that came out of a Minnesota reading task force, licensure requirements for teachers were better synced with evidence-based best practices in reading instruction.

But as Alexander pointed out during his testimony, the new criteria only impacted new teachers — those with little ability to enter a school system and create change. Teachers who already held their licensure were exempt from the new requirements.

Nelson said she’s interested in revisiting this, to ensure all teachers are on the same page with scientifically based reading instruction, when it comes to meeting licensure requirements.

Meanwhile, Wiger has drafted a bill (S.F. 81) that would create a Minnesota Reads task force. The 15-member task force would be appointed by the commissioner of education and include a mix of educators, literacy researchers, parents and business representatives. They would be tasked with advising the commissioner on strategies to reach 100 percent reading proficiency rates for both third-graders and adults by 2025. Additionally, by Feb. 15 of each year, they would be tasked with supplying state legislators with a report that includes recommendations for legislative action to improve literacy programs and outcomes.

In particular, Wiger says he’d like to see a task force like this spearhead a statewide campaign, promoting literacy.

People are not mad enough about how we are failing their students,” he said. “There should be a great deal of outrage right now that we are not making adequate progress.”