Senator proposes innovative programs to enhance student reading and writing skills

Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA)

The top Republican on the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Bill Cassidy has been representing Louisiana in the upper chamber since 2015. Cassidy recently unveiled a widely discussed document, “Preventing a Lost Generation: Facing a Critical Moment for Students’ Literacy.” With schools grappling with learning setbacks, and with only merely 33 percent of 4th graders demonstrating reading proficiency, it’s encouraging to witness leaders taking action. In light of this, I contacted the senator to delve into his report and his vision. Here’s his perspective.

—Rick

Rick Hess: Senator, you have shown a longstanding commitment to literacy and particularly dyslexia. Can you shed light on why this matter resonates with you?

Sen. Bill Cassidy: Literacy—the fundamental skill of reading—is at the core of all learning. If students fail to grasp reading, they are impeded in acquiring new knowledge in other subjects. The implications of illiteracy are significant, leading to lower high school graduation rates and higher incarceration probabilities. Additionally, without a workforce proficient in literacy, our nation struggles to fill the 9 million vacant jobs or adequately support the military, undermining our competitiveness globally.

Within the realm of literacy, studies indicate that dyslexia affects millions of individuals across the nation, approximately 1 in 5 Americans. Dyslexia does not reflect intelligence but rather underscores the necessity for personalized instruction and resources. As a parent of a dyslexic child, I understand the challenges of accessing the necessary tools for a child’s optimal development. Regrettably, many students are not screened for dyslexia until they have already lagged behind, if they are screened at all. Even after identifying a child with dyslexia, parents may struggle to find or afford a school that delivers tailored education.

We must adopt a modern approach to literacy and dyslexia informed by scientific insights, incorporating early screening and evidence-based teaching to ensure every child reaches their innate potential.

Hess: You recently published a new document on literacy. What prompted this initiative? And why now?

Sen. Cassidy: We are currently facing the risk of an entire generation of children—primarily exposed to learning during the pandemic—failing to become productive adults without advancements in reading proficiency. Although several states are implementing measures to enhance literacy education, more needs to be accomplished. This publication underscores the urgency of this issue and seeks input from stakeholders nationwide. This feedback will be pivotal in shaping our federal endeavors to better support teachers, parents, students, and schools in ensuring universal reading proficiency.

Hess: Your report highlights several disconcerting statistics in the realm of reading. Which data points do you find particularly revealing?

Sen. Cassidy: The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress disclosed that two-thirds of 4th and 8th graders struggle with proficient reading. The average reading score for 4th graders marks a two-decade low. For 8th and 12th graders, average scores are nearing a 30-year nadir. These statistics are alarming and wholly unacceptable.

Hess: There has been a growing emphasis on evidence-based reading instruction. Could you outline key research findings from your report and the promising practices or policies you identify?

Sen. Cassidy: It is crucial to clarify that the term “science of reading” references evidence-based research rather than a specific curriculum or program, and extends beyond phonics-centered instruction. This body of research identifies essential components for students to learn reading and writing, as well as the optimal methods for educators to integrate these components into reading lessons. Specifically, the science of reading emphasizes the necessity for explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction in the five fundamental pillars of literacy—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

States effectively implementing the science of reading approach are supporting implementation by deploying literacy mentors, updating teacher training programs, and providing dedicated coaching for current educators in the science of reading. These states are also ensuring all educators, not just reading specialists, receive training in evidence-based reading practices. Enhancing student literacy demands a concerted effort from everyone involved.

Hess: Several states have undertaken substantial efforts to revamp reading instruction, including Louisiana. Which states stand out in this endeavor, and what lessons can be gleaned from their practices?

Sen. Cassidy: I take pride in Louisiana’s endeavors to boost student literacy. A key factor in their success lies in the comprehensive nature of these initiatives. Louisiana is among the three states implementing all 18 components outlined by science of reading experts as part of a holistic literacy policy. Consequently, Louisiana witnessed the most substantial gains among all 50 states in 8th-grade reading on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another notable example is the “Mississippi Miracle,” showcasing Mississippi’s remarkable progress in literacy over the past decade. Mississippi accomplished this feat through concentrated efforts on implementing science-of-reading reforms. Rather than merely enacting legislation and hoping for the best, the Mississippi Department of Education diligently worked to establish clear guidelines and resources, providing educators with crucial support and training to enhance instruction. Mississippi also ensured parental involvement and student access to high-quality materials.

Hess: Your report advocates for a collective call to action rather than specific recommendations. Nonetheless, do you have general insights on what Congress should consider in terms of data collection, oversight, or legislation?

Sen. Cassidy: Input from educators and families, directed to literacy@help.senate.gov, is pivotal in this process. I intend to provide more insights following a review of feedback on the report and discussions with stakeholders. Any proposed policy must support teachers in applying the science of reading and empower parents to recognize and address it. While curriculum decisions should remain under state and district purview, there may be opportunities to enhance federal funding utilization for literacy and aid states in addressing complex literacy elements.

Hess: A couple of decades ago, during the Bush administration, the Reading First program aimed to promote evidence-based reading instruction. Looking back, do you view Reading First as a cautionary narrative, a model worth resurrecting, or something else?

Sen. Cassidy: It serves as a cautionary tale. Reading First aspired to align literacy instruction with evidence-backed methods and materials, yet encountered implementation challenges and conflicts of interest. I hope this report encourages the education sector to reflect on past literacy support initiatives and offer constructive feedback to avoid repeating historical missteps.

Hess: Final query: Considering existing regulations, are there avenues the U.S. Department of Education could pursue to better confront the challenges you’ve outlined? Are there specific modifications to current programs, funding streams, or regulations you wish to see the department explore?

Sen. Cassidy: This is precisely the question I aim to delve into with the education sector as we receive responses to the report. I have already heard concerns suggesting room for improvement, and we must strive for better outcomes. This juncture calls for a collective exploration of all ideas and collaborative planning to enhance literacy. Failure to act now could yield severe long-term repercussions.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

The post One Senator’s Plan to Improve Student Literacy appeared first on Education Next.

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