A national study says almost half of Pennsylvania fourth graders are reading below grade level, a situation two state senators are calling a crisis. Senator Anthony Williams (D – Philadelphia) and Senator Ryan Aument (R – Lancaster) introduced Senate Bill 801 late last month under the title, “Literacy for All Pennsylvanians.”
The bill lands amid a national reckoning on the state of literacy and the methodologies utilized to teach young children how to read. More people are affected by low literacy in the United States than are diagnosed with cancer or heart disease.
“Currently, one in five American adults struggle with reading basic sentences. For these individuals, tasks such as reading the mail, completing tax forms, or even engaging in civic duties can be nearly impossible,” Aument said in a press release. “Literacy cannot be a skill reserved for wealthy families and those who can afford private tutoring. Learning to read is a challenge for many, and that challenge does not discriminate.”
What’s in the bill
The bipartisan proposed legislation contains three main points: implementation of teaching methodologies that are based on the science of reading, early identification of struggling readers, and support and interventions for those struggling students.
If passed, the bill will require districts to utilize evidence-based models to teach students how to read. Districts will also be required to develop a screening process to ensure that every child who is not reading on grade level will be identified for support and specific interventions to get them on grade level.
When asked if the legislation will take any control away from local districts, Aument said, “No. The bill does not mandate the specific program that any district must use, but rather, the modality must be evidenced-based and rooted in the science of reading.”
Other states have implemented similar legislation with proven results. According to Aument’s press release, “after Mississippi’s literacy program was passed in 2013, the state rose from 49th in fourth grade reading to 21st in the nation. After two years of statewide teacher training in the science of reading, the latest assessment results also showed that North Carolina students in grades K-4 made greater mid-year gains than students in other states using the same assessment, with the percentage of kindergarten students meeting the benchmark almost doubling from 28 percent to 56 percent.”
A bipartisan effort
Republican Aument is joined by Democrat Williams in co-sponsoring the bill.
Williams said the challenges presented by low literacy are staggering, including preparing future generations of Pennsylvania’s workforce in both professional and technical positions to keep America positioned as a leader in the global economy. He also said the military has already been warning that the service branches are having difficulties finding recruits literate enough to serve.
“This disturbing trend puts our country at a perilous point in history. We must prepare our children for future challenges, including their role in protecting our country. If we fail to do so, we risk continued decline as a nation,” Williams said, continuing:
This is a significant issue, especially for communities of color with lower incomes. These communities rely on the public school system they are assigned to, which has consistently produced low academic test scores and poses safety concerns for students and staff alike. We must not overlook the aspirations and potential of any individual in our country. It is imperative that we include and empower every American in this battle for progress and equality!
Unfortunately, we are debating politically defined tribal boundaries. If you are a registered member of a particular party, you are supposed to repeat the tribal script given to you upon election regarding public education, regardless of the truth in a member’s district. The current political debates regarding choice do not address the long-sustained years of failure, despite the millions of new dollars added to the state budget. That’s a fact. Many politicians and benefiting interest groups that oppose choice spend their time defending the status quo. Attack any suggested response to problems but never provide a viable solution themselves. Just ask for more money. We all wish it were as simple as adding more money. Despite the multi-millions of dollars added to the last several state budgets, we still have declining test scores, teacher shortages, diversity in teaching problems, unsafe school buildings … and the list grows.
Most importantly, we have parents watching our political dysfunction while they just want what is best for their children. Recent surveys show that most parents wish to have options/choices. In particular, underserved communities. They know the outcome of sending their children to the assigned school in their community, which might not work after all. And sadly, most politicians are aware of this information.
Williams and Aument are currently focusing on educating members of the Senate and House. Many, according to Aument, do not understand the direness of the situation and how many Pennsylvanians are impacted by poor literacy. The bill is a top priority for these Senators and they are hopeful to gather bipartisan support for the legislation through the fall.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at [email protected].
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