December 8, 2019

The Truth About the Reading Bill SB349

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The Truth About the Reading Bill SB349

The 2019 Arkansas legislative session has been awash in drama and venomous backlash against a bill that addresses literacy in Arkansas.  The senate bill, SB349, carries the unfortunate subtitle, “To Reduce the Amount of National School Lunch State Categorical Funding a Public School District or Open Enrollment Public Charter School Receives If Its Overall Reading Readiness is Below a Certain Percentage.” This title, with words like “reduce” and “school lunch” and “funding,” has led to confusion and a slanderous campaign against the sponsor, Senator Alan Clark. However, as is usually the case, not all is what it seems on the surface.  Just a little homework on the reader’s end would have answered questions about the content of this bill. Without reading the bill or asking any questions about it, journalists and news media outlets jumped into firing squad formation and began to assassinate the character of Senator Clark with headlines like “Arkansas Senator Proposes to Cut School Lunches to Improve Reading” and other similar vicious nonsense. The malice shared to his social media page was even worse, with filthy language from parents and constituents, and countless references to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by teachers who wanted to share an angry piece of their mind. If the vulgarity had not been so disgusting, the outlandish comments might have been comical.

Would any legislator really punish struggling readers with denial of lunch? Absolutely not. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is hard to imagine that any Arkansas legislator would consider keeping lunch from a child at school because his or her reading scores were too low.  What utter nonsense.  It’s time to set the record straight and explain what this bill is about and why Arkansans might choose to support it.

Understanding the Funding: The Backstory

Money from the federal government through the Federal National School Lunch Act provides money for free and reduced lunches. This is federal money and is untouched by the state.  Kids will get their lunches, and no legislator or state law may take that away.

Additionally, schools in Arkansas receive special funds known as National School Lunch State Categorical Funding (“NSL” funds). This money provides supplemental funding for special programs, NOT for lunches, and the amount of funding given to each district is based on the number of students in the district that receive reduced or free lunches.

The take-home point: Lunch money and supplemental funding based on the number of free and reduced lunches are not the same thing.

What Does the Bill Really Say?

The purpose of the bill is to “put teeth” in the existing 2017 law, Act 1063, The Right to Read Act. This law requires that Arkansas teachers be trained in what is called “the science of reading,”  which is a return to phonics-based instruction (sound out the new word) based on the most current neuroscience (brain) research, rather than the whole language approach (look-say memorization method) which has proven disastrous for literacy rates. This means that students in state-approved teacher education programs must “demonstrate an awareness of the best practices of scientific reading instruction,” and public school districts and open-enrollment public charter schools must provide professional development in the science of reading for their teachers. In other words, everyone must get on board with the evidence-based reading instruction that we know is effective.

Why the Threat to Funding?

Unfortunately, a law doesn’t work well without consequences, and there is no built-in accountability for the Right to Read Act. District administrators and teachers can continue to do the same old thing, the same old way, with the same old miserable results – very low literacy rates in our state- and not face any penalty.

But money talks. Money ALWAYS talks. It’s especially loud and persuasive in the realm of education. In fact, money is the reason states so quickly embraced the Common Core State Standards with literally ZERO evidence of worth or effectiveness. Common Core was a grand experiment on the school children of America and was immediately welcomed as the next best thing because it promised money to the states through grants or Race to the Top funds. We are beginning to see the sorry fruits of that movement with declining test scores across the nation, but the sorry fruits of the whole language fiasco have been rotting away at our literacy for decades.  Money easily motivates in the world of education, thus Senator Clark’s bill to establish monetary consequences for continuing low literacy rates.

SB349 says that a school with less than 70% reading readiness in grades 3-10 must show improvement (this means ANY degree of improvement) in order to keep their supplemental funding. If they do not show any improvement after the first year, their teachers must be retrained in reading instruction, but their funding will not be affected. If they do not show any improvement in the second year, then the school will receive funding “that is one (1) level lower than what it would have received based on its percentage of enrolled students who are national school lunch students.”  In other words, they receive less funding.  If this continues for a third year, then the school district will be ineligible for the funding until they show improvement.

More About the Supplemental Funding

The backlash from parents, teachers and administrators thus far has centered around losing supplemental funding for the districts that so desperately need it; they claim the children who need it most will be sorely disadvantaged by losing their special program funding.  But a closer look at this reveals something I can’t quite understand.  There was more than $28 million dollars leftover from the State Categorical Funding in the 2017-2018 academic year. Currently, the balance is $36 million with only three months left in this academic year, which you can find in the far right bottom corner of the Arkansas NSL Funds Report.  The first, far left column reveals the amount that was carried over from the previous year.  Districts are allowed to carryover the NSL funds from one year to the next if they have not spent the money. Administrators, teachers, and parents are claiming that removing the funding will hurt the children, yet many of the districts are not even using all of the money.  For a list of rules related to how districts are allowed to spend these funds, see the Rules Governing the Distribution Student Special Needs Funding and the Determination of Allowable Expenditures to Those Funds, beginning with section 6.05, page 29.  Parents and teachers may want to ask this question: What is our NSL funding being spent on in our district?  If there is a great deal of money in the balance from the previous year, and much more left near the end of this year, then one should wonder if this money will be spent at all or just sit there unused.

The Reading Wars: Phonics and Whole Language

Fierce debate about the best practices in reading instruction has been raging for decades, dubbed “The Reading Wars” (Cook, Rodes, & Lipsitz, 2017).  According to the phonics school of thought, reading is a developmental process. We learn letters and sounds, then decode those sounds and learn to blend them together to pronounce a word, and in this process,  we learn the mechanics of reading. In short, we learn HOW to read, and consequently develop reading independence.  Research in reading instruction has long supported this method. More recently, research findings in neuroscience has supported this method as well.

The whole language philosophy, on the other hand, requires a look-say memorization method of reading. Whole language began in the mid-1970s as a fad, resulting in wide-spread adoption as the latest and greatest reading instruction throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain. In whole language instruction, the child is expected to see a new word, say it, then memorize it by sight. There are no mechanics involved, no “how to” method. This creates an obvious barrier for learning because the child must learn the new word from someone who already knows that word. This is a stark contrast to phonics, which provides the child with the tools to “figure it out”.  Whole language, therefore, does not offer reading independence. The look-say method requires an incredible amount of time and practice, with a lot of repetition.

Learning phonics to mastery keeps our brains from being overloaded so that we can remember content. When we must memorize all the words from elementary to middle school, and then take on the unusual multisyllabic words for high school, such as those for literature, science, and math, this results in memory overload.  When this happens, there are not enough context clues in the world to help – just like a computer with memory overload – leaving no room in memory to learn what the words are about. Learning the 26 letters and 44 corresponding sounds allow us to retain the knowledge of what all the words mean when they are strung together to create a thought.

Balanced Literacy – The Hybrid Approach

As whole language began to be discredited, a new scheme emerged as an attempt to keep aspects of whole language alive through a hybrid method called Balanced Literacy. It combined aspects of whole language with some phonics. However, if phonics is a proven method of reading instruction, why implement only parts of it? This results in a fly swatter approach to reading instruction. Perhaps it simply provided more money for education scammers. New curriculum. New training. More money from the federal government. One can only guess at the real reasons for a hybrid.

Why Did We Keep A Discredited Method?

Whole language has been deemed an educational disaster since the 1990s in published research, but sadly it has continued to dominate reading instruction in America. Why? First, people do not change easily. We learn how to do something and then continue to do it the same way, resisting change, because change is a lot of work and can be painful. Teachers have learned to teach reading with the whole language approach and they understandably don’t want to go through the upheaval of a massive change in the way they teach.  This is our human nature and most of us understand the struggle.

Secondly, current scientific findings are rarely communicated to those who are most in need of the information.  In the case of reading instruction, neuroscience (brain) and linguistic (language) research findings have not been shared with those who teach in early childhood, literacy, and special education.  The information is available but simply not communicated to those on the front lines. The same phenomenon happens in health care: findings from laboratory science can take years or decades to make its way to the bedside care of patients.  Consequently, the Arkansas 2017 Right to Read Act legislated that teachers in Arkansas must be taught the latest science of reading. I commend Senator Joyce Elliott for her work on that legislation.

A third reason for whole language continuing to dominate education is that Reading Recovery is big business. The Reading Recovery program was developed in the 1970s, when the whole language movement started, as an intervention for children with reading difficulties.  This should have been a red flag that whole language was a failure, since we suddenly needed “recovery” from its poor results. Never let a good crisis go to waste, right?  If we keep our education system in crisis with low reading scores, profiteers of the Reading Recovery scheme still benefit. A lot. Costs for Reading Recovery include teacher training fees, graduate course education for some teachers, publisher materials and curriculum, and the list goes on. Untold millions of dollars have been dumped into this black hole. The Reading Recovery program continues to be widely used throughout the nation, despite the overwhelming evidence since the 1990s that it, just like whole language, is a failure.

The Science of Reading and the Child with Reading Challenges

There are multiple forms of learning and reading disability, but the one most often mentioned in public discussions regarding reading in Arkansas is dyslexia. In 2016, the Arkansas Department of Education published it Rules Governing How to Meet the Needs of Children with Dyslexia, based on revisions in the Arkansas law regarding dyslexia screening and intervention, outlined in Act 1268 of the 2015 General Assembly, which requires a dyslexia interventionist in each school district.

Training in the science of reading will be beneficial for reading-challenged students, especially those with dyslexia. Understanding neuroscience – the way the brain functions and learns – is key to understanding how to train the brain to process written language. Multiple approaches, individualized to each dyslexic child, will prove fruitful where whole language on its own has not. Dyslexic children may struggle with the steps of phonics instruction just like they may struggle with the sight memorization of words in whole language; therefore, a singular method, the one size fits all approach, to reading instruction rarely works for the reading disabled child. Teacher training in the science of reading can help teachers (including classroom teachers, dyslexia interventionists, special education teachers) offer the best opportunities for reading success with their dyslexic and other reading-disabled students.

What About the Districts That Are Already Implementing the Science of Reading?

There are districts across the state that have been on board with the change in reading instruction since it was legislated in 2017 with the Right to Read Act.  They deserve credit for doing so, and the Arkansas Department of Education has highlighted some of them in this document, offering them high praise for their good work.

But what about those districts that have seen their scores increase since changing to phonics-based reading instruction (they have already seen the expected increase), but may hit a plateau or decline in scores in the next few years?  As one elementary school principal explained to me, “sometimes, despite doing all the right things, you still have an off year and scores will dip.” He’s right. So how will a district like this be viewed if SB349 becomes law? We do not have an answer to that question yet, but it is my hope that multiple factors will be assessed and considered when deciding whether a district needs teacher retraining or deserves reduced funding.  An appeals process may be needed.

The Devastating Effects of Low Literacy

Arkansas ranks 44th in the nation in terms of poverty. That means that only six states plus the District of Columbia are poorer than our state. Sixteen percent of Arkansans live below the poverty level. This correlates closely with our reading ability in Arkansas. The National Assessment for Education Progress, commonly known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” reveals the latest reading score for Arkansas (2017), putting us at the bottom in reading, with only three states having a lower score.

Illiteracy has devastating effects on an individual, community, state, and the economy. The person who cannot read well, or read at all, is rendered incapable of obtaining and understanding the most essential information they need for doing things such as completing a job application, reading the necessary documents for job training, or navigating the health care system (insurance forms, patient education materials, etc.).  Jobs for those who cannot read well are typically very low quality, if the person can find employment at all.  The list of consequences of low literacy is nearly endless.

There is nothing – NOTHING – that has the power to pull a person up out of poverty like the ability to read. While we tend to be focused on the most immediate needs of our Arkansas children (food, clothing, shelter, love), it is imperative that we not forget the long game. Arkansans – parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, and individual citizens – need to work together to improve our literacy rates. We can do this!

— Jennifer Helms, PhD, RN,  President of Arkansas for Education Freedom

A note about district control:

I would be remiss here if I did not clearly state that Arkansas for Education Freedom believes in district control related to choice of curriculum.  If this or any bill prohibits choice by local districts with regard to the phonics-based curriculum they want to use to accomplish the goal of improved literacy rates, we will not support it.  If, on the other hand, the Department of Education provides a list of quality reading curricula from which a district may choose, we support this.

**A personal note about memorization in the learning process:

 It is important for me to note here that while memorization of the words in the English language is a failed method of reading instruction, I am firmly convinced that some memorization of information and content is valuable in the learning process, although it has been widely and unfairly maligned. I support memorization of facts that will be used as a foundation for further learning (such as math multiplication tables, or class, genus, species in science, for example). The current (and strong) push to eliminate all memorization of facts, especially in the sciences, will eventually prove disastrous. There is absolutely no question for me that eliminating a reasonable amount of memorization of subject content is a mistake of epic proportions. Please do not confuse the need to stop memorizing sight words with eliminating memorization of foundational content in other subjects.

Reference for Reading Wars:

Cook, P., Rodes, D. & Lipsitz, K. (2017). The reading wars and reading recovery: What educators, families,               and taxpayers should know. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 22 (2), 12-23.

****A special thanks to Amber Jones for her valuable input in the section on learning phonics to mastery.

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