Memo to Policymakers: Help Teachers Focus on Reading

By Robert Pondiscio

This article originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website on November 19, 2020.

At the tail end of a recent symposium titled “Why children can’t read—and what we can do about it” hosted by American Enterprise Institute, Margaret Goldberg, a California first grade teacher and founder of the Right to Read Project, made a simple and surprising observation. As a teacher, she feels that her most important job is to teach reading. But that’s not the message she and other elementary educators are hearing.

“I hear that my primary job is to meet the social and emotional needs of my students, or it’s to have strong classroom management, or unpack my implicit bias. It’s to make sure that they have rich art experiences, or do exploratory learning. I’m told a thousand different things that I’m supposed to focus on,” she explained. “I think if we gave teachers permission to focus on teaching reading well, and gave them the supports that they need, we could actually get somewhere with this problem.”

If you’ve never been in the classroom, hearing a first grade teacher say she’s told that her success is judged on things other than teaching reading must sound like telling an air traffic controller she has things to do that are no less important than safely landing planes. But a lot of teachers are going to suffer neck strain nodding along with Ms. Goldberg whose remark wasn’t pointed or combative. It was a simple, just-the-facts-ma’am observation for the benefit of AEI’s audience of policy wonks.

So listen to Ms. Goldberg. If we’re serious about raising reading achievement (is there anything more important for early childhood education?) the best place to start is by clearing away the weeds and signaling to pre-K and elementary school teachers that their primary job is to teach reading. Since nearly every bad outcome in education has its roots in early reading struggles, everything else matters less.

This is not a decision teachers can make unilaterally. Assessment expert Dylan Wiliam regularly counsels school leaders and administrators to take things off of teachers’ plates, not add more. “The thing you take off will be a good thing,” he notes, but “stopping people doing good things gives them time to do even better things.” In other words, schools and teachers need a permission structure to focus on early childhood literacy.  That’s the role of policymakers to create and enforce.

Some states see and embrace this priority more than others. At the same AEI event, Carey Wright, Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education, described the steps her state has taken to prioritize early childhood literacy, notably the state’s “Literacy-Based Promotion Act,” which requires schools to retain students in the third grade who score at the two lowest levels on state reading assessments. Even more important are requirements that the state’s teachers must be trained on the science of reading. A 2016 Mississippi law requires elementary education candidates to pass “a rigorous test of scientifically research-based reading instruction and intervention.” This puts the onus on the state’s ed schools to ensure teacher candidates know and can implement effective instructional practices to teach reading.

Equally critical was the decision to deploy literacy coaches, who work for the state, not schools or districts. “That may not sound like much, but the last thing I needed was to push money out to districts and have us have a principal on the other end say, ‘Oh, thank God. I can get rid of this lousy fifth grade teacher,’” Wright tells me. “I’ll make him the literacy coach and use this money to hire a good teacher.’”

It’s seldom observed that the vast majority of American teachers are trained and certified in the states in which they work. This gives state policymakers a prodigious amount of leverage both to insist that colleges of education stress the science of reading in training early elementary educators, and to ensure that state certification reflects candidates’ ability to implement it. “I’m not sure that all states are taking advantage of the authority that we have,” Wright observed. “We made a decision that all teachers K–three, and all administrators and special ed teachers, were going to be required to have the training. We just made the decision. We didn’t ask anybody’s permission.”

Mississippi is not the only state with a third-grade reading guarantee, or that has taken steps to signal the importance of the science of reading. Arkansas’s 2017 “Right to Read” Act requires K–6 teachers, K–12 special educators, and reading specialists to obtain a “proficiency credential” on the science of reading.  Tennessee requires teacher prep programs to align their programs with sound literacy practices. Watch for an upcoming report from the Council of Chief State School Officers that will detail these and similar initiatives in other states.

It’s a bit of a bromide to say that policymakers need to “listen to teachers.” But listen to Margaret Goldberg. Early childhood and elementary school teachers have no more important task than to teach reading. And policymakers have no more important role than to create the permission structure for teachers to focus on getting children to the starting line of basic literacy. Everything else is less important.

No, seriously. Everything else is less important.


Robert Pondiscio is the Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute promotes educational excellence for every child in America via quality research, analysis, and commentary.