This post is the first part of a four-part series detailing the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act.
Reading well by age nine is a crucial skill for students to unlock their academic, economic, and social potential. Yet all too many students don’t know how to read: more than three-quarters of Alaska’s fourth graders were not proficient on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Giving teachers and administrators the support they need to implement early literacy laws will be important to improve Alaska’s outcomes for generations to come.
The Alaska Reads Act, signed by the governor in 2022, has several requirements and options for districts to improve student outcomes in reading. But having a law on the books does not guarantee that it will be implemented effectively. Success depends on supporting teachers and administrators, students, and families as early literacy policies are put into action in the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.
Teachers and administrators, who are responsible for day-to-day implementation, deserve support in expanding their knowledge of early literacy skills, the quality of instruction, and improving teacher competencies. Educators are aware that learning to read is a continuum of knowledge and skills that need some explicit instruction, but not all teachers are well prepared to teach students how to read.
Training educators in the science of reading is a priority of the Alaska Reads Act, which requires the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) to provide a “virtual education consortium,” no later than July 1, 2024, to provide virtual resources to both students and educators. DEED will put a special focus on reading, which might include “training in the Science of Reading,” and “training in how to teach reading.” A reading specialist will be hired to provide virtual interventions to struggling students as well as coach and mentor teachers in effective teaching. Participation in the virtual education consortium is optional for teachers.
DEED had begun providing some optional professional development opportunities before the passage of the Alaska Reads Act. DEED partnered with the Region 16 Comprehensive Center (R16CC) to offer the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training to 60 educators and 30 administrators for free beginning in the summer of 2022. DEED also hosted the first annual Alaska Reading Symposium in 2022 as well as the Alaska Science of Reading Leadership Academy for school leaders.
It remains to be seen which vendors may be selected to provide training in the science of reading through the virtual education consortium, but the fact that DEED was piloting LETRS training is encouraging. North Carolina, which passed the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, provides funding to put all teachers serving pre-kindergarten through fifth grade through the LETRS training within two years of the law’s enactment. Similarly, states like Florida and Mississippi, which have seen astounding improvements in academic outcomes, use LETRS to train their teachers in the science of reading.
Although educator preparation programs in Alaska are not required to align their curriculum with evidence-based reading instruction, teachers have to demonstrate an understanding of the science of reading for certification. To ensure that educators have a common baseline understanding of the science of reading, the Alaska Reads Act requires that certificated teachers “complete coursework, training, or testing requirements,” before teaching grades kindergarten through third grade.
Teachers must demonstrate proficiency in skills to increase students’ “phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, oral language skills, and reading comprehension.” In the draft regulations, teachers serving K-3 students must earn the “K-3 educator endorsement,” which entails three semester hours of coursework or evidence-based reading training. Alternatively, teachers may take and pass one of two “teaching reading” examinations specified in the regulations.
Teachers applying for certification in the state of Alaska will need to receive their K-3 educator endorsement by July 1, 2023. Current educators won’t have to obtain their endorsement until July 1, 2024. Ensuring that all of Alaska’s K-3 teachers have shown proficiency in teaching reading will provide continuity in teaching styles and methods for students in early grades as well as fill in gaps for teachers whose colleges may not have prepared them to use evidence-based methods to teach reading.
Providing on-site literacy and reading support to schools is an important support mechanism for teachers in the classroom. The Alaska Reads Act establishes the Department Reading Program, which allows the lowest 25% of schools in reading achievement to voluntarily opt-in to intensive reading intervention on a schoolwide basis. Schools that apply and are accepted to participate will be assigned a department reading specialist, who will help schools implement a K-3 reading improvement plan. If the school continues to qualify after one year of intervention, they will be given the option to participate for a second year.
This program is similar to Mississippi’s support of identified literacy support schools. Schools may receive varying levels of support from literacy coaches, regional literacy coordinators, and assistant state literacy coordinators. Mississippi has gotten results from providing target schools with literacy coaches two to three days a week: Measures of instructional quality, student engagement, and teaching competencies all increased. Ratings of quality of instruction increased from the 31st to 58th percentile, student engagement increased from the 37th to 53rd percentile, and teaching competencies increased from the 30th to 44th percentile.
Unlike the Mississippi program, however, DEED hires reading specialists directly to provide support to all identified schools. In the draft regulations, department reading specialists must hold a valid teaching certificate, completed an approved graduate program focusing on reading specialties, and complete three semester hours each of indigenous language learning and culturally responsive education. The Department Reading Program will include at least one on-site visit to each school annually by a department reading specialist while the remaining support will be delivered virtually. Schools in the lowest 25% of Alaska’s schools in reading achievement must voluntarily apply to participate, which may mean some identified schools do not apply to participate if school administrators feel trapped by the status quo or find the commitments required to participate in the Department Reading Program too effortful.
The Alaska Reads Act has built in numerous supports following best practices from states like Mississippi and Florida to get Alaska’s teachers the training they need to teach reading effectively. The Act requires teachers to undergo training or pass exams in evidence-based reading approaches for a K-3 endorsement. The state will provide professional development and mentoring in teaching reading through the virtual education consortium. For schools struggling to improve their reading outcomes, the department reading program offers an option to receive intensive support from the state’s reading specialists. This network of support will make it easier for educators and administrators to implement the requirements of the Alaska Reads Act effectively.