What Federal and State Reading Legislation Should and Should Not Do

Since the early 1980s, a significant role of state government has included funding and mandating public school practices and policies. Spurred by A Nation at Risk under Ronald Reagan, most states committed to the accountability era in U.S. public education grounded in state standards and high-stakes testing.

Bringing that state-based process to the federal level, George W. Bush ushered in the federal role in the accountability era with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s.

The federal and state templates for education policy and reform have been fairly consistent for forty years, and currently, most political leaders and media pundits continue to claim that public education is failing, specifically targeting reading achievement by students.

Since most states have passed or are rushing to pass education legislation targeting reading practices and policies, here are guiding principles for what any federal or state legislation directly or indirectly impacting reading should and should not do:

  • Should not publicly fund private vendor comprehensive reading programs.
  • Should not endorse private vendor reading programs or reading materials.
  • Should not adopt “ends justify the means” policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term (for example, 3rd-grade retention policies).
  • Should not prescribe a narrow definition of “scientific” or “evidence-based.”
  • Should not prescribe a “one-size fits all” approach to teaching reading, addressing struggling readers or English language learners, identifying and serving special needs students, or teacher education and preparation of teachers of reading.
  • Should not ignore the limited impact in-school only practices have on measurable student outcomes (test scores).
  • Should not prioritize reading test scores over a wide range of targets and types of evidence to insure all students have high-quality access to learning to read.
  • Should not teacher-proof reading instruction or de-professionalize teachers of reading or teacher educators through narrow prescriptions of how to teach reading and serve struggling readers, English language learners, or students with special needs.
  • Should not prioritize advocacy by parents and non-educators over the expertise and experiences of K-12 educators and university-based scholars of reading and literacy.
  • Should not conflate general reading instruction policy with the unique needs of struggling readers, English language learners, and special needs students.
  • Should not over-react to short-term measurements of reading achievement (test data).

And thus,

  • Should fully fund and guarantee to all students the highest quality teaching and learning conditions for learning to read: low student/teacher ratios, well funded and supported instructional materials for learning to read chosen by teachers to fit the needs of their unique populations of students (prioritizing authentic texts for students in the classroom and in their homes), guaranteed and extensive time to read and learn to read daily.
  • Should reduce significantly the amount of and consequences for standardized testing and adopt accountability structures that include a wide range of types of evidence of student learning over a long period of time.
  • Should support the professionalism of K-12 teachers and teacher educators.
  • Should adopt a complex and robust definition of “scientific” and “evidence-based.”
  • Should embrace a philosophy of “first, do no harm.”
  • Should acknowledge that students needs across the general population, struggling readers, English language learners, and special needs students are varied and complex.
  • Should acknowledge the teacher as the reading expert in the care of unique populations of students and prioritize evidence-based student needs over complying with uniform standards or prescriptive programs.
  • Should provide funding and oversight for guaranteeing all students access to high-quality teachers (certified, experienced) and challenging, rich reading/literacy experiences regardless of student background or geographical setting (equity [input] standards over accountability [output] standards).
  • Should recognize that the research base and evidence base on reading and teaching reading is diverse and always in a state of change (i.e., there is no settled science of reading).
  • Should acknowledge and support that the greatest avenue to reading for all students is access to books and reading in their homes, their schools, and their access to libraries (school or community).
  • Should prioritize longitudinal data (test scores) on reading achievement as guiding evidence among a diversity of evidence for supporting instruction and teaching/learning conditions.
  • Should guarantee that all students are served based on their identifiable needs in the highest quality teaching and learning conditions possible across all schools.

Education legislation targeting reading needs to be guiding concepts and not prescriptions. But the overarching guiding principle should be grounded in the abundant evidence of failure by education reform over the past four decades; at the very least, federal and state legislation should not continue to do the same things over and over while expecting different outcomes.