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Could legislation boost literacy in Nevada?

Donny Newsome
Donny Newsome

Assembly Bill 187, introduced during this legislative session by Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama and others, aims to improve the scientific foundation for teaching reading in our state. The intent of this law, prohibiting the use of the “three-cueing” method of reading instruction in Nevada’s public schools, is laudable, even if it is not a comprehensive solution. Unfortunately, even this this modest step toward a more scientific approach to public reading instruction has yet to receive a hearing in its house of origin.

Over the past decade, Nevada has implemented several measures aimed at improving literacy outcomes for its students. The Read by Grade 3 Act passed in 2015 requires regular reading assessments and interventions for kindergarten through third grade students reading below grade level. The law also established a Read by Grade 3 advisory council to oversee the implementation of evidence-based reading instruction.

In 2017, the Nevada Ready 21 initiative aimed to improve technology and digital literacy skills across the state, providing funding for infrastructure and teacher professional development. The Educate Every Child Act passed in 2019 aims to improve literacy outcomes for students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students through evidence-based reading instruction, teacher development and targeted interventions. Despite these efforts, Nevada is a perennial bottom-dweller among U.S. states in terms of academic achievement and per-pupil spending.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a congressionally mandated, nationally administered assessment for fourth and eighth graders, allows us to compare student outcomes across states. The 2022 NAEP report indicates that Nevada’s fourth graders’ reading skills are significantly below the national average, with only 27 percent of students reaching a proficient reading level. By eighth grade, only 29 percent of Battle Born students are proficient Readers. The long-term trend is also worrisome, with 2022 reading scores for both fourth and eighth graders falling below where they were in 2013.

These stark statistics raise questions about why these legislative packages have not had the desired effect, what other states are trying and whether the idea that literacy can be legislated is fundamentally flawed. The current legislative session may provide some insight about how our state’s leaders aim to answer these questions.

Following an emerging trend in multiple states, Nevada’s elected officials are considering bills that go further than ever toward mandating effective literacy instruction. Previous literacy legislation in Nevada has focused mostly on funding and accountability but has stopped short of dictating the use, or disuse, of any particular curriculum.

Some states have already taken the step of mandating more effective literacy instruction. North Carolina, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and West Virginia have passed laws mandating the use of a phonics-based approach to literacy and teacher training in the science of reading. Other states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Rhode Island and Texas, have gone even further by requiring teachers to pass a reading instruction exam based on the science of reading. At least 29 states have adopted, or are considering, laws to require the use of effective curriculum and revised teacher preparation.

The most notable thing about many of these new bills is the level of specificity about what is to be taught. The directives to utilize curriculum based on “structured literacy,” “the science of reading,” “phonics-based instruction” and so on leave less wiggle room than vague and easily circumventable requirements like “empirically supported” or “evidence-based.”

A similar wave of new laws has focused on banning the use of curriculum that is known to be ineffective for teaching reading. Arkansas and Louisiana, for example, have banned literacy instruction that relies on the discredited “three-cueing” method, also called “balanced literacy.”

The state of Texas is presently considering a comparable ban, as is Nevada through Assembly Bill 187.

The failed three-cueing approach to reading instruction has been adopted by districts across the nation since the 1960s, including here in Nevada. Emily Hanford’s podcast, Sold a Story, does an excellent job describing how so many states and teachers were duped into adopting ineffective curricula and teaching practices. The tragic story of how three-cueing methods ended up in our classrooms clearly demonstrates why vague terms like “evidence-based” are no longer adequate as a regulatory standard.

Whether we can legislate our way to better literacy outcomes remains to be seen. The evolving strategy of using laws to specify what curricula can and cannot be used may prove more powerful than previous initiatives, which did not have such specific curricular prescriptions.

While banning ineffective curricula may be a step in the right direction, that alone will not be enough to turn around Nevada’s literacy rankings. Banning one type of instruction without providing guidance on what should be done instead could lead to further problems for teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, the insidious three-cueing method has been around long enough to infiltrate university departments of education. It is what our teachers were taught to do. As such, turning around Nevada’s literacy rankings will almost certainly require more than just the prohibition of bad curricula.

Luckily, Nevada lawmakers considering more specific mandates for literacy instruction have a clear path to follow, should they choose to take it. At the request of Congress, the National Reading Panel was formed in 1997 and charged with the task of investigating the relative effectiveness of different approaches to reading instruction.

The panel enlists the expertise of dozens of top scientists from universities around the country who have weighed the compendium of evidence from hundreds of studies of literacy instruction.  Although much has been made about the “reading wars” in which competing philosophies about literacy instruction have vied to control the public narrative since the ’70s, among these experts the science is settled. Systematic phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, fluency building and comprehension strategies are the major components of a comprehensive program of literacy instruction, according to the National Reading Panel.

Nevada is in a great position to join other states in finding out how far legislation can go in solving our literacy crisis. Nevadans deserve a wholesale transformation of literacy instruction in our public schools. The bold and sweeping reforms our state needs will likely take multiple legislative sessions to debate and pass, but could still help the current generation of students if work starts today.

So far, no bills have been introduced in the current session indicating that level of ambition. Instead, we might look forward to a trickle of smaller bills to chip away at the problem. Any steps in the right direction will be welcomed, even if they are small. Will AB187 be Nevada’s first step toward a new era of legislated literacy?

Donny Newsome is a founding director of Fit Learning, a precision teaching laboratory in Reno, Nevada.


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