Carrie Coyner, Glenn Davis, Louise Lucas and Jennifer McClellan column: Addressing the reading crisis in our classrooms

By Carrie Coyner, Glenn Davis, Louise Lucas and Jennifer McClellan

As we begin a new session of the General Assembly, with divided control between Republicans and Democrats, it might be easy to get distracted by those issues that set us apart. Given the challenges we face, however, it is more important than ever to come together.

That’s why we — two Republicans and two Democrats; two members of the House of Delegates and two members of the state Senate — are joining forces with legislation to strengthen and improve the way Virginia teaches young children to read and develop lifelong literacy skills. We’re focused on what we know: Nearly every student, no matter their background or circumstance, can learn to read if they are taught using the most effective, scientifically aligned methods.

Specifically, our Virginia Literacy Act will ground literacy instruction in science-based reading research, and provide guidance and support for all stakeholders in our education system: students, parents, teachers, school systems and our higher education institutions. This multifaceted approach will build a strong foundation for young readers and ensure consistency across the commonwealth.

Recently released data from the state-supported Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening assessment, which identifies students in grades K-2 who are at risk for reading difficulties, reveals our children’s reading peril. The data shows that even before the pandemic, too many children were failing to reach reading benchmarks; children of color, children with disabilities and children living in poverty also were disproportionately performing below benchmark, and therefore at risk for reading difficulties. As a result of the ongoing pandemic and disrupted learning opportunities, the number of children failing to reach the benchmark has hit historic highs, with racial and socioeconomic disparities more severe than ever.

Our bill will tackle this problem by implementing a comprehensive, evidence-based, statewide literacy plan to get all of our students on track. The Virginia Literacy Act will keep parents informed of their students’ progress, and ensure parents have access to resources to help their children. At a time when many are concerned about the need for more effective partnerships between schools and parents, our bill will strengthen the parental role in the reading instruction of their children.

The act will ensure that higher education programs in Virginia teach aspiring teachers to implement science-based reading instruction before obtaining a teaching license. The bill will require that current teachers are guaranteed access to continuing professional development, and that school systems provide all students with evidence-based literacy instruction, screening and monitoring of their early reading progress, and (when necessary) evidence-based remediation and intervention services.

Other states have taken similar approaches with impressive success. For example, Mississippi, a state that consistently has been at or near the bottom of national education rankings, passed comprehensive literacy legislation in 2013. Six years later, and despite one of the highest poverty levels in the country, Mississippi fourth graders tied the national average in reading and saw gains in literacy, while more Virginia students fell behind.

Other states are following suit: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Connecticut all are promoting statewide literacy plans that incorporate science-based reading research. Some Virginia localities already have begun to take this approach as well.

The Virginia Literacy Act will provide a statewide and science-based approach to reading that will expand opportunities for all Virginia children to be successful readers, and for their parents to be partners in their success. The data makes clear that our current approach to early literacy instruction is failing too many children.

This bill would have been important before the pandemic. Now, it’s even more critical. We hope our bipartisan approach to this legislation not only reflects its importance, but also encourages our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join our effort, and unify on behalf of our children and parents. We don’t have a moment to lose.