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“Follow the science.” For nearly a year now, that has been the mantra governing all decisions regarding New Jersey’s public schools. If we are going to do right by all of the educators and all of the learners found in the Garden State’s classrooms – be they traditional or virtual rooms – we need to follow the science.
If we can all agree on the importance of following the science when it comes to reopening our schools, why does New Jersey so solidly reject the idea of following the science when it comes to teaching our youngest learners to read? Why do we reject the science when it comes to doing what is proven effective in equipping virtually all students with the literacy skills necessary to succeed in middle school, high school, post secondary, and life?
In recent years, New Jersey overhauled its teacher preparation regulations, rightfully ensuring that teacher candidates are spending more clinical hours than ever on their paths to becoming teachers of record. But that overhaul overlooked our need to ensure that elementary education teachers are prepared in the “science of reading,” the research-proven instructional approaches that have been proven time and again as most effective in the classroom.
In the most recent research from the National Center for Teacher Quality, New Jersey ranked 49th among the 50 states (and also way behind the District of Columbia) when it comes to the average number of scientifically-based reading instruction components taught by traditional teacher education programs. When it comes to teacher preparation here, New Jersey places far below states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Texas in effectively preparing elementary school teachers. On a scale of one to five, New Jersey scores a 1.5, barely beating out Oregon for the “honor” of last place.
Sure, we can say that our school districts are using professional development and in-service education to fill the gaps on the content and pedagogy that beginning teachers may not have gotten in their preservice education, including the two-thirds of scientifically-based reading they aren’t getting in their prep programs. But that isn’t happening either. One only needs to look at many of the highly resourced school districts in the state that proudly tout their purchases of Lucy Calkins (believing that a program coming out of Columbia University’s Teachers College must be infallible), even after Lucy Calkins admitted this past summer that their program is severely flawed and fails to teach the science of reading.
With all we know about the science of reading, with the groundbreaking research of the National Reading Panel to decades of subsequent data on the how best to teach reading, surely we can do better. We should do better. When the National Reading Panel and NCTQ talk about the five key components of research-based reading instruction, we aren’t exactly asking New Jersey’s colleges of education to begin teaching aspiring teachers to speak in tongues, learn quantum physics, or bring lasting peace to the Middle East.
So what are the essential elements of good reading instruction? What are we missing when it comes to preparing New Jersey educators?
Good reading instruction teaches children the five basic components of reading — skills that they need to not only read but to speak and communicate. Those components are:
- Learning how individual sounds make up words, known as phonemic awareness. Children should be able to identify these sounds when hearing teachers say them and be able to segment words into their individual sounds, or phonemes.
- Understanding the relationship between the sounds of letters — phonemes — and how they are written as letters — graphemes — is critical to being able to read. Learning the connection between phonemes and graphemes is the goal of phonics.
- Becoming skilled in reading text accurately and quickly — or fluency.
- Understanding the words one reads — vocabulary — is important for reading words and making sense of what one reads.
- Developing the ability to understand and gain meaning from what they have read –comprehension — is the goal of reading instruction: reading for meaning. (Otherwise known as reading comprehension.)
This past year of Covid instruction has demonstrated the collective strengths and shortcomings of public education in the Garden State. After a year of lowering our expectations and hoping to get through our state lockdown, we are now hearing more and more voices demand that our teachers now move mountains, effectively teaching on digital platforms that they were never prepared to use while also immediately eliminating all of the learning gaps that have resulted from the past 11 months of our new normal. In the best of times, such an expectation is near impossible. But when we haven’t properly equipped teachers to address the challenges, when we haven’t provided them with the knowledge and tools that are proven effective, we are destined for collective failure.
So what we must do to ensure that reading instruction, whether offered in person or virtually, incorporates these essential elements? What can state and local government do to make sure our elementary school classrooms — whether in person or virtually — embody the science of reading that we know is so important?
- First, schools must employ a comprehensive reading program grounded in evidence-based reading research, with all components of the program carefully aligned so that instruction is seamlessly organized.
- Second, schools should use instructional materials that provide highly explicit and systematic instruction in the five components of reading instruction. We should not leave it to chance that children will learn these, incidentally.
- Third, schools must provide high-quality in-service education and ongoing staff development for teachers to enable them to understand the science behind reading instruction and how that should be translated into their practice.
- Fourth, we should allow adequate classroom time for reading instruction. The time allocated should enable all children to reach grade-level performance standards. That means that children who are behind need extra instructional time.
- Fifth, every school should have a system for regularly evaluating student progress throughout the school year, using classroom-based instructional assessments to determine whether goals are being met in a timely fashion and, if not, what remedies we should incorporate into the instructional program.
- Sixth, data from classroom assessments should determine where help is needed at a classroom, school, and district level. Data remains an important diagnostic tool, despite recent assaults on testing and assessments.
- And seventh, immediate intervention should be provided when student progress is not at the desired levels. That intervention should be developed based on the assessment of students’ skills and should be tailored to their needs.
If New Jersey is truly going to embrace the notion of following the science when it comes to k-12 education, we need to follow it fully and with fidelity. That means our education schools are preparing prospective teachers in the science of reading, our classroom educators are provided professional development experiences based on the same science, and our schools and districts are collecting the data to support it. It means that all learners – including special education students and English-language learners – are acquiring literacy skills.
At least 17 states have adopted laws requiring the “science of reading” as part of teacher preparation others, with several others states are planning to move forward with such legislation this year. So we must ask, why is New Jersey not on this list?