The news often leaves me exhausted, for many different reasons. At the top of the reasons would be reporters' thinly veiled glee for more bad news. They just love kicking up a lot of dust. However, I have to remind myself, reporters are just being human. For reasons I don't understand, people take a certain perverse satisfaction in being the one to pass along bad news. I don't exempt myself here, having been eager to point out the fair amount of bad news out of states as many backpedal on teacher quality.
As spring closes in on summer and busy legislative sessions come to an end, let's give the counter narrative some attention, that is, a whole swath of strong, positive actions from states.
Arkansas is on fire, determined to do battle against high rates of chronic illiteracy, mostly caused by decades of poorly informed instruction in its elementary schools. While many states are getting serious about improving reading, Arkansas' Act 606 stands out for having the courage to face down the frankly tiresome "local control" argument, the justification often cited by states for refusing to take action. Shepherded through to nearly unanimous passage by the legislature, led by fearless reading champion Senator Alan Clark, Act 606 actually imposes financial penalties (a whopping 10% reduction in state funds) on any school district daring to use a curriculum recommending the "three-cueing system," which is essentially the canary in the coalmine for bad reading instruction. The legislation was well-timed in that districts are flush with federal funds and can actually afford to replace reading materials. Observed local reading champion Audie Alumbaugh, "69% of 4th graders in Arkansas read below grade level. Why are people not up in arms over this?" Thanks to people like Audie and Senator Clark, they are.
North Carolina is also turning the tables on bad reading instruction with significant new legislation in SB387, in which the state is committing to providing professional development in reading to its teachers (hardly unusual) but requiring a single vendor, LETRS (highly unusual). A similar bill sponsored by Senator Phil Berger was defeated in 2019 (it's all about timing), but Berger and a host of other power players persisted, including the former State Board member, JB Buxton, well known for his political chops, and the current chair Eric Davis. It didn't hurt that the new state superintendent Catherine Truitt had campaigned heavily on the state's poor reading scores, inspiring confidence from the folks holding the purse strings that new leadership would deliver. Reporting on the sidelines was Rupen Fofaria at EdNC, who has dug into this issue like a bulldog for the past three years. Said Rupen, "I felt passionate. It was a privilege to cover."
While we're on the subject, two amazing public servants in the Colorado Department of Education, Mary Bivens and Colleen O'Neil, deserve a shout out for implementing a state policy that most states have but rarely enforce, which is that their teacher prep programs must adhere to scientifically based reading methods in reading coursework. Bivens and O'Neil serve as shining examples that policies aren't worth the paper they're written on unless they're implemented with fidelity. Anyone who has ever gone up against powerful higher education lobbies knows what pressure CDE has been under to cave on its reading requirement, especially when its largest teacher producer was not falling in line. Presenting this work to other state leaders last week, Colleen was asked how to do this work without ruffling a few feathers, giving a tough but utterly honest answer: "It's not possible."
Finally, there's an old adage in the education world that schools are remarkably indifferent to the successes of other schools, no matter how tremendous the accomplishments. So we're trying to figure out what's different about Dallas's own successful experiment with paying effective teachers to work in challenging schools (the ACE program) given that there are currently no fewer than 300 school districts in the state in or wanting in. Certainly districts were persuaded by the impressive leaps in student achievement Dallas reported and lured by the $1B in new funding provided by the state to replicate the success in Dallas, but they also had to be willing to redirect their own funding. Surprisingly, they are. Texas school chief, Mike Morath, Senator Larry Taylor, and Rep. Dan Huberty get plenty of credit here, but so does former Goldman Sachs investor Todd Williams, now a man on a mission to fix education in Texas. His large Commit organization contributes the political and private sector chops to make this work. Says Todd, "This could be a real sea change for our state." We agree and hope other states are paying attention.
I'd be delighted to pass along other incredible progress that's being made on the teacher quality agenda. If you'd like to share something, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.