Kansas Blueprint for Literacy requires ‘science of reading’ in comprehensive education reform

(The Sentinel) – Using the science of reading to teach literacy will soon be required in Kansas schools — and to train new educators in Kansas teacher’s college programs.

Senate Bill 438, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — and which Kansas Governor Laura Kelly is expected to sign — not only enshrines the evidence-based method in state law but sets aggressive targets for student achievement improvement and creates a new 15-member Literacy Advisory Committee along with a “Director of Literacy Education.”

Additionally, the bill requires the establishment of regional Centers of Excellence in Reading.

Dr. David Hurford, director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Awareness of Dyslexia at Pittsburg State University, who helped draft the bill and has been a passionate advocate for the science of reading, says he is excited.

“What’s great about this bill is it’s a comprehensive approach to dealing with the issue of reading failure,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It really reflects the knowledge that we know and have gained through science and can apply to help children become competent readers.”

Literacy Advisory Committee will provide needed oversight, monitor progress

The bill sets some of the most aggressive literacy targets in the nation, requiring that by 2030 — just five years after the bill takes effect — 100% of Kansas elementary teachers achieve a micro-credential in the science of reading and structured literacy and that at least 50 percent of 3rd through 8th graders achieving level 3 or above and at least 90 percent of Kansas 3rd through 8th graders achieving level 2 or above on the English language arts state assessment by 2033.

The 2023 state assessment shows that 32% of students in Grades 3-8 are reading below grade level (Level 1), 33% are at grade level but still need remedial training (Level 2), and 34% are proficient (Levels 3 and 4).  Within ten years, only 10% should be below grade level, 40% should be at grade level and need remedial training, and 50% should be proficient to meet the goals.

To do that, the bill creates a 15-member committee which includes the director, who is to be appointed by the executive officer of the Kansas Board of Regents, and a cross-section of state universities, community colleges, the governor, representatives from both chambers of the Kansas Legislature, and an expert in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) for four-year terms.

The committee would be required to report yearly to the legislature on progress toward those goals.

State Board of Education unsuccessful in attempts to avoid accountability

The education establishment — while giving qualified support to the bill — also predictably wanted any accountability measures cut.

Kansas State Board of Education Member Ann Mah, who testified on behalf of the State Board  — ostensibly in favor of the bill — insisted that oversight by the committee was unneeded.

“We … do not find it necessary for the literacy advisory committee to monitor the progress of literacy training for in-service teachers as the Kansas State Department of Education already has a staff person responsible for that,” she wrote. “Likewise, KSDE staff also monitor literacy methodologies in secondary schools.”

Likewise, Leah Fliter, assistant executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards, objected to “enshrining the details of  the Kansas Assessment program in statute.”

“We suggest that the bill’s goals would be better served by more generally describing the outcome desired — e.g., … meeting the SBOE’s definition of success in literacy — and leaving the details of what specific performance on the KAP meets that definition to the determination of the SBOE,” she wrote. “The SBOE has been clear in its guidance to school boards that students scoring Level 2 on the Kansas Assessments are meeting grade-level standards. To enshrine any different definition in statute would be contrary to the SBOE’s guidance and would create confusion and the false impression that students who are in fact meeting these expectations are somehow not successfully completing ‘grade level’ work.”

In her rush to avoid accountability, Fliter inadvertently exposed a false claim that KASB and KSDE have made about Level 1.  Acknowledging that Level 2 is grade level means Level 1 is NOT grade level.  That contradicts claims that the state assessment doesn’t measure grade-level performance, so they can pretend that no students are below grade level.

Level 2 is not proficient and academically prepared to move on, however.  KSDE tells the U.S. Department of Education that only Levels 3 and 4 are proficient.  KSDE also says only students in Levels 3 and 4 have the “academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation.” (emphasis added)

By their own definitions, KSDE says students in Level 2 need remediation.  KASB and KSDE only wanted an achievement target for Level 2 and above, but the Legislature prevailed in requiring at least 50% of students to be able to read proficiently.

What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is a comprehensive, tested approach to teaching literacy that works for nearly every reader, helping them to unlock the “secret codes” that are the basis of the written word.

“You know, reading is a very challenging process,” Hurford said. “Acquiring speech is a fairly natural process that’s pre-wired in the brain, and some have thought in the past that reading should be that way too. But it’s just not. The parts of the brain that we’re asking to do the reading weren’t really built to do that. So neuroscientists refer to reading as ‘neurological recycling,’ meaning we’re using a part of the brain to do something that was not intended to be used in that fashion — so it’s just more challenging, and you have to teach the code.

The bill requires that all teachers — and by extension all students learn:

  • Phonological & Phonemic Awareness
  • Reading
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing
  • Punctuation Symbols

If this all sounds very basic and like the phonics many over 50 used to learn to read in grade school, that’s because it is. However, in the last few decades, other strategies have begun to be used, and most of them have been abject failures, with more than a third of fourth graders unable to read at a basic level and nearly 93 million adults unable to read well enough to take their prescription medication.

SB438 also categorically prohibits, on or after July 1, 2025, school districts from using any textbooks or instructional materials that utilize:

  • The three-cueing system model of reading as the primary basis for teaching word recognition;
  • Visual memory as the primary basis for teaching word recognition; or
  • The three-cueing system model of reading based on meaning, structure, and syntax and visual cues.

It also provides for $10 million to help train current teachers in the science of reading.

Hurford highlighted the comprehensive nature of the bill.

“The Kansas Department of Education, the Kansas Board of Regents, the legislature, teachers in the field, administrators in the field, you know, everyone wants to see children succeed in reading, and it’s going to happen,” he said. “So, you know, it’s exciting and is probably the most comprehensive bill of any state in the country, and really should be used as an exemplar of what other states can do.”

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