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Pa. could become the latest state to mandate 'evidence-based' reading instruction

Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

PHILADELPHIA -- As a reading specialist in the Cumberland Valley School District in Central Pennsylvania, Megan Gierka saw her roster of students who needed extra help swell to all but seven of her school’s second graders.

Gierka didn’t understand how so many children were struggling.

But as her school began to shift to a “structured literacy” approach, she saw how her district’s previous methods had failed: Teachers hadn’t been taught how explicit reading instruction should be — breaking sentences down not just to words, but units of sound. Screening assessments weren’t catching struggling readers. And teachers’ instruction varied from classroom to classroom.

Teachers were “kind of left to their own devices,” said Gierka, now a senior content developer at the AIM Institute for Learning and Research, the nationally known research and training arm of the private school for children with language-based learning differences in Conshohocken.

As battles over how best to teach kids to read play out in districts across the state, Gierka and other advocates for the so-called “science of reading” movement are paying close attention to the latest Harrisburg efforts to legislate reading instruction. A bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee earlier this month would require that school districts use “evidence-based” reading curricula, and screen students in kindergarten through third grade three times a year with specific tests measuring their reading competency.

Gierka is among those who favor tighter rules on curricula, along with better teacher training to boost reading proficiency: Just over one-third of fourth graders in Pennsylvania are proficient in reading, according to national testing data. But the effort is meeting pushback.

 

Following conversations with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, lawmakers recently softened a requirement that schools choose from a list of preapproved curricula — creating an option for districts to submit programs to the state Department of Education for review.

The amended bill, which directs the department to create a 20-person “reading leadership council” to choose curricula, “ensures that educators will play a role in vetting and selecting the evidence-based reading curricula and programs that schools can choose from,” said Chris Lilienthal, a PSEA spokesperson.

While advocates have expressed concern the amendment would potentially allow schools to avoid making changes to curriculum, they also acknowledge that curriculum lists aren’t a panacea — with some states selecting programs that science-of-reading proponents consider ineffective. About 30 states have imposed curricula or instruction requirements.

‘A necessary evil’

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