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Reading instruction in Kentucky, bad news and good

Regular readers know that the Bluegrass Institute has pointed for some time to obvious problems with the quality of reading instruction in Kentucky’s public schools. Aside from lots of blogs about reading performance, one of our latest additions to this material is our report on What Milton Wright knew about reading instruction, but lots of teachers apparently don’t, published in July 2021, and the more recent report about Reading proficiency rates rising in some Appalachian schools, issued in January 2022.

The Milton Wright report includes information like this figure which shows how Kentucky’s Grade 4 proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have not changed much over time and have actually started to decay in recent years. 

The Wright report also points out that some of the programs used in Kentucky’s Read to Achieve remedial program actually don’t follow the scientific research on reading, either.

Further support for that claim just was released this month, by the way, at the American Educational Research Association’s annual convention. As reported by

American Public Media in “New research shows controversial Reading Recovery program eventually had a negative impact on children,” the very expensive Reading Recovery program is facing still more evidence it doesn’t work well. Until now, Reading Recovery has been one of the programs specifically approved for use in Kentucky’s Read to Achieve program.

So, evidence continues to mount that one of the major remedial programs for reading in Kentucky was using the wrong stuff.

The Wright report isn’t just negative. It goes on to point to encouraging evidence from Mississippi, of all places, that shows Kentucky’s public schools could do better if the teachers were taught how to teach reading in accordance with what scientific research shows works best instead of continuing on with much current practice which doesn’t follow the science and doesn’t work well for students. The message Kentucky can do a lot better – if its teachers learn how to teach reading properly – was further demonstrated in the Appalachian schools report, where we show that some schools that retrained their teachers produced astonishingly strong reading results despite massive poverty.

Still, what has happened in a few Kentucky schools in Appalachia isn’t being reproduced statewide at present. Thus, the grim statistics from the NAEP have not changed much.

Fortunately, the statewide reading picture could be about to change. During the just completed legislative session, a bill to improve literacy, Senate Bill 9, was enacted. This bill will focus more attention on reading performance with such things as required use of evidence based instructional methods, more review and analysis of students to spot learning problems sooner, better remedial program operation, better inclusion of parents into the process, and perhaps most important, the implementation of “teacher academies.” The Teacher Academies will allow teachers across Kentucky to learn how to teach reading in ways that are now known to work best for students.

And, the academies are coming. In Media Advisory 22-134, the Kentucky Department of Education announced: 

“The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is launching a new, exciting partnership, called the Kentucky Reading Academies, which brings the

Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) professional learning opportunity to educators across the Commonwealth. The partnership is supported through American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funding.”

LETRS, by the way, is the program Mississippi has used successfully to move its reading performance from behind to ahead of Kentucky’s on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Grade 4 Reading exams.

So, the news about reading is encouraging, but there is a lot of work still to do. So far, no Kentucky teacher has ever entered a reading academy, let alone successfully completed the program. In fact, the program details, and training of instructors, is still to come.

Also, Kentucky’s Reading Academies are, for now, a voluntary effort. Teachers have to opt in. Given the very long-term intransigence about changing weak, unscientific practices like Reading Recovery to teach reading (after all, the science of reading was well-established over two decades ago by the National Reading Panel report in 2000), it remains to be seen if enough opt-ins will occur to really make a difference – or if the Reading Academy effort itself will get undermined.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children in the commonwealth continue to go on receiving weak instruction on reading. That’s just not acceptable.

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