Testimony Before the Education Committee
Amy Dowell, Connecticut State Director
Education Reform Now Connecticut
March 6, 2020
Re: Support for H.B. No. 5380, An Act Concerning School Literacy
Chairs McCrory and Sanchez, Vice-Chairs Abams and Barry, Ranking Members Berthel and McCarty, and Members of the Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony in support of H.B. 5380. I would like to first take this opportunity to thank Representative Patricia Billie Miller on her continued leadership on this committee in the pursuit of improved literacy in our public schools.
Last fall, with the release of the most recent biennial results for the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), we learned that fourth-graders in Connecticut showed a statistically significant decline in reading. This indication that our students aren’t appropriately developing literacy skills is consistent with both national trends and the most recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In short, we have a serious problem in the development of our students’ foundational learning skills, and we need to address it now.
In the face of results like these, investigative journalists and curriculum experts across the country have been studying the so-called “reading wars,” attempting to distinguish between two dueling schools of thought on literacy instruction. The “balanced literacy” approach, commonly taught across the country, seeks to imbue a love of reading. It embraces strategies that often give students a false sense of making progress, but that have shown to hide shortcomings and reinforce counter-productive skills. For instance, a student might be assigned a book with pictures that cue a verbal response, often leading the child to guess, rather than utilize phonics to sound out the words. In contrast, the “science of reading” emphasizes deliberate phonics instruction coupled with reading comprehension, which education experts agree, and the data confirms, is the most effective way to teach literacy. Among all states’ results reported on the recent NAEP assessment (in which Connecticut's fourth grade results declined), there were only two jurisdictions that improved their reading scores, Washington, D.C. and Mississippi. Both did so after increasing the required levels of phonics instruction.
I trust the settled science on this issue, and I trust that you will too. Therefore, any serious effort taken by Connecticut to improve its literacy outcomes must begin by assessing the extent to which the science of reading is being taught and meaningfully incorporated into districts’ and schools’ early literacy curricula, and intervening when students and educators have fallen off track.
With that background and broad support for this bill in mind, the following four principles will make H.B. 5380 even stronger:
Hold Alliance Districts Accountable, and Take Lessons Learned Statewide. I appreciate this bill’s emphasis on intervention in the Alliance Districts. However, such interventions should be required for Alliance Districts with students who score below proficiency levels on the SDE’s approved K-5 reading assessments, rather than merely offered to them. Further, any lessons learned from Alliance District reading interventions ought to be shared statewide; the State Department of Education’s annual report to this Committee on the progress of such interventions should include recommendations that can be replicated in all districts, not only the Alliance Districts.
Ensure that the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success is Aligned with the Science of Reading. I am very supportive of Section 5 of this bill, which establishes the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success because Connecticut’s literacy deficiencies indicate a systemic problem that requires a coordinated response. I urge you to explicitly call for the appointment of leaders to the Center who are informed about and aligned with the science of reading.
Make Sure Current and Future Teachers Understand the Science of Reading. I also support Section 6, which would establish a working group to explore the extent to which the science of reading is being taught in our teacher preparation programs. I hope that this working group will ultimately produce recommendations not only to improve the preparation of future teachers, but also to provide needed professional development that will bridge any gaps for teachers who have not yet been trained in the science of reading.
Collect Information on Current District Practices. I urge this Committee to establish a team of third party literacy experts to survey all public school districts on their early literacy curricula, with an eye towards identifying programs that don’t sufficiently focus on and embed phonics instruction.
When students don’t develop the early skills to read and write effectively, that foundational shortcoming impacts their performance across subjects and grades. It stifles their ability to succeed in all future endeavors, with lifelong implications in college and career. We need to treat the issue of literacy deficiencies in our state with the urgency it deserves. Connecticut parents and students are counting on you to support and expand upon this important bill.