At the close of last year Congress took an important step forward in addressing the future of American education by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This accomplishment is a good, and necessary, step towards supporting our students with the best tools possible to ensure their success in school and prepare them for college and the workforce, but there is more work to do to maximize the impact of this investment.
Our educational policies must match the challenges facing our children. As the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed us, only 36 percent of America's fourth graders are reading at grade-level. That means that 64 percent of students in one of the most important and formative years of their lives aren't equipped with the building blocks necessary to understand the words on the pages in front of them in their assignments, or the concepts their teachers are putting on the white boards in the classroom.
The LEARN Act contained in ESSA takes on literacy education to the tune of $190 million in money for states to receive for fiscal year 2016. The money, congress says, needs to be split by states receiving federal money:
- 40 percent for students in K-5
- 40 percent for students in grades 6-12
- 15 percent for students from birth through kindergarten
- 5 percent for the state government for assessments and technical assistance
Reading is the cornerstone of all learning. Students who are able to master the fundamentals of reading in the critical years between kindergarten and the fourth grade are better equipped to progress in their studies and succeed in all subjects: science, math, social studies, and the arts.
Given what we know about the importance of mastering reading early, Congress, the administration, and the Department of Education should take heed of two considerations to strengthen ESSA.
First, we need to be spending a higher percentage of the money on K-5. These years are critical to the education of our kids and doubling down on providing struggling readers with the resources and support they need during this time is in line with what educators know to be most effective. Spending more money on the K-5 years will yield gains in reading and strengthen the foundational skills necessary for students to go on to master other studies.
Next, to ensure our students are getting the best possible product, we should mandate that state leaders require literacy programs to compete for ESSA funds. Fostering rigorous competition for federal grant money slated to be given to programs to improve literacy will ensure that only the best evidence-based, empirically-driven programs actually reach implementation. Competition is healthy and will result in better programs for our classrooms and better results for our students.
LEARN will open the door for many community based programs to help struggling readers and support educators. However, if we are to address the literacy crisis in this country in a meaningful way, we need to be making very real investments in quality K-5 programming designed to give struggling readers the support they need at the time when they need it the most.