Chamberlain: The Genesis of Illiteracy

The Genesis of Illiteracy
By: Senator Roger Chamberlain

Despite high political tensions, I still believe we have more that unites us than divides us; more in common than not. With that in mind, I would like to discuss something we can all agree on — our kids’ literacy.

The latest reading data from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is, to say the least, depressing. Only 55.7% of students meet or exceed 4th-grade reading standards. That’s correct: 55.7% reading proficiency for 4th graders, and it is worse for non-white students. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Within five years we can get that number to 90%.

Going from 55% reading proficiency to 90% in only five years may sound like a dream, but it’s not. It’s within our reach. We don’t even need to rewrite curriculum, add fifty pages of new laws and mandates, or spend billions of dollars. It can be achieved by implementing a program with a proven track record of success in other states called LETRS. More on that in a minute.

First, I must say up front that I do not intend to lay blame for our current failures on anyone’s proverbial doorstep — especially not teachers. But we can’t settle for the status quo.

How did we get here? Something called the “Reading Wars.” 

Ideas about the best way to teach reading fell into two equally passionate groups: those who believe in language immersion (“whole language”); and those who believed reading instruction should follow a structured scope and sequence (“structured literacy”). For many years,  the “whole language” faction was winning on college campuses as the preferred methodology. As a result, teachers were ill-equipped to properly and effectively teach reading, and our students short-changed. We’ve been trying to climb out of that hole ever since.

Based on recommendations of the National Reading Panel, we know students best learn to read through structured literacy. That’s where LETRS comes in. LETRS stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. It is professional development that provides teachers with the skills needed to master the fundamentals of reading instruction. Those fundamentals include phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and language. 

LETRS has become the consensus approach to training educators on how to properly teach reading to young students. It is backed by 30 years of scientific research with over a decade of proven success. Ohio, Mississippi, and Alabama are all currently using LETRS as part of efforts to improve reading outcomes. It is even being used here on a limited basis. The teachers love it because it works; they have seen significant success. 

Parents brought it to our attention. During their tireless work addressing dyslexia and literacy, they came across the work that was being done in Mississippi. Mississippi had declared war on illiteracy and is now leading the nation in reading progress.

It is a bipartisan agreement that enjoys the support of all stakeholders, including the teachers union, teachers, school board association, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), and, most importantly, parents.

We can all agree on the importance of ensuring students know how to read at an early age. 90% literacy for fourth graders within five years is an achievable, important goal. And just as important, it’s something everyone can get behind; something that can help unite us.