VOICES: Despite the best of intentions, education policy still comes up short

I recently visited seven U.S. presidential libraries. I couldn’t help but notice in the recounting of their administrations that each of the presidents fervently believed that education was the most promising path out of poverty. Each made education a priority.

Dwight Eisenhower advocated for the National Defense Education Act after the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957. Lyndon Johnson crusaded for a War on Poverty, making quality education for all children a central plank. George W. Bush successfully persuaded Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sadly, all of these efforts failed to meet the presidents’ boldest goal of making the United States a world leader in education.

Recently, states have tried to improve young children’s reading skills by establishing 3rd Grade Reading Guarantees. The focus on reading is premised on the belief that if children can’t read well, then every subject, in every grade, will be difficult to master.

In 2013, Ohio passed its own “guarantee.” The objective was right. But there were too many exceptions and loopholes. As time has shown, despite the best of intentions, the “guarantee” has failed to move the reading proficiency needle. In 2022, more than a third of Ohio’s 3rd-graders were not proficient readers.

Why is that good idea failing? I’d argue that we have inconsistently and poorly implemented the policy. More specifically, we continue to misunderstand and confuse “standards” and “curriculum.” Academic standards are what every child should know and be able to do at each particular grade level. The curriculum, on the other hand, is how standards are taught, with the goal of every child successfully meeting standards.

The 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee set an important standard, but lawmakers failed to take the next step and insist that schools use an evidence-based curriculum to teach reading. Instead, they left it up to each school district to pick its own approach to the reading curriculum. Too many have chosen poorly – specifically neglecting key reading pillars such as phonemic awareness.

Unfortunately, that local control approach has not worked. It’s time to be prescriptive – especially when it comes to something as fundamental to student success as reading.

Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed requiring that teachers use an approved curriculum based on the science of reading. The mandated curricula and instructional materials will be chosen based on best evidence-based practices and what has worked successfully in other states across the country.

Additionally, colleges and universities would be required to prepare teachers to teach reading using proven pillars of effective reading instruction such as phonics, phonemic awareness and vocabulary.

Some levels of the education establishment undoubtedly will find ways to object, including teacher associations and colleges and universities. They’ll argue the governor and supporters are going overboard, and, as professionals, they know better what works.

We have tried to make a national difference for several decades in student achievement, which depends on students knowing how to read. But test scores have, at best stagnated.

It’s time to make a wholesale change. It’s time to get serious and require students be taught using instructional methods we know work. We must make the change at every level of our education system, from higher education to every school district and classroom.

The governor needs our support. Only if school districts are required to use evidence-based instructional approaches with fidelity will we ensure all children are strong readers.

Tom Gunlock is the Chair of the Wright State University Board of Trustees and a former member of the Miami University Board of Trustees and the State Board of Education.

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