This week the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for three days. While they talked about a lot of things, there was a particular focus on various aspects of early learning. Though some of the discussion generated controversy, it’s good this area of education is getting the attention it needs.
A significant part of one of BESE’s periodic retreats focused on what the Department of Education is doing to address what has become a crisis in recent years – early literacy. Reading is an area where Louisiana students have actually been in a decline when looking at the state’s annual LEAP scores.
Fewer students are entering kindergarten at what would be considered grade level and that shows up later in third grade standardized tests where only 41% of students are considered proficient. That number was exacerbated by the pandemic and the disruptions it caused in schools across the state, but the downward trend actually pre-dates COVID.
All of that has prompted significant policy changes and substantive legislation over the last couple of years to address the problem. Most of it has focused on using an evidence-based approach to teach literacy through what is called “the science of reading.” And a big part of that has included teaching teachers how to teach more effectively using that approach.
There has also been a new focus on literacy screenings in the early years where students will be evaluated multiple times each year to measure their progress in more-or-less real time. This will give teachers and parents a better idea of how students are doing during the course of the year and provide early interventions if needed.
These policy changes are still in the process of implementation, so the results of this work are yet to be seen. But this approach is in line with what states around the country are doing and what experts in reading are now saying is the most effective way to teach kids to read. It can’t come soon enough, as students that enter fourth grade behind in their reading skills tend to struggle throughout their later school years and on into adult life.
As part of this, BESE also approved a major change to the state’s school accountability system by adding a K-2 literacy component which will be developed over the course of the next year or so. Right now, our accountability system only measures student performance starting in third grade. All states are required by federal law to have an accountability system, but Louisiana’s move to start it in kindergarten would make it perhaps the only state in the nation to begin that early.
Superintendent Cade Brumley has pushed that ambitious initiative as a way to combat the state’s reading crisis and focus the attention of school leaders on ensuring that students can read with proficiency by the time they leave third grade.
Of course, one of the things literacy screenings have shown is that problems with reading don’t start in kindergarten. That’s just the first place we begin to measure it. What we see is that too many kids are showing up in kindergarten behind where they should be in literacy development. In many cases that means these children have small vocabularies, have trouble communicating, don’t recognize letters, and don’t understand the meaning of words.
To that end, BESE gave initial approval to a new set of early learning standards. Standards in education are often misunderstood, but in this case they represent the types of things young children should know and be able to do at various age levels. Louisiana has been nationally-recognized for its early learning standards, and these build on our first set that was implemented in 2013.
These standards go beyond the building blocks for reading, including demonstrating a basic understanding of numbers, patterns, objects, and time. They have generated some controversy because besides covering these fundamentals they also referenced what’s called “social and emotional development.”
That’s defined in the standards as the process through which children gain the capacity to understand, express, and manage their emotions and develop meaningful relationships with others. But social and emotional learning, though used by teachers for decades, has recently become controversial in some circles. Some legislators and activists attending the BESE meeting expressed concerns about their inclusion in the standards. But CABL supports the standards and is hopeful whatever issues surrounding them can be resolved in a way that will allow the new standards to be implemented soon.
But controversies aside, it is encouraging to see policy makers placing so much focus on the early years of children’s lives. CABL has been promoting early learning policies since the inception of Louisiana’s LA-4 pre-k program two decades ago.
It’s not the only thing we need to do in education, but we know maintaining and sharpening that focus on our youngest learners will result in changed lives, and a healthier, safer, and more prosperous state.