Minnesota's Reading Task Force
The Impact of Not Learning to Read
In December of 2006, John Alexander, Groves Academy’s Head of School, spoke to a group of nearly 200 people about reading and the implications to individuals and to society if children do not learn to read. His presentation highlighted the startling facts that almost 40% of Minnesota fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level and nearly 70% do not read proficiently (with good comprehension). Mr. Alexander also made a strong economic case for early identification of, and intervention with, students deemed to be at risk of reading failure based on a program he helped develop in California.
Listening to Mr. Alexander that day were several key Minnesota state representatives and senators, including DFL Senator Kathy Saltzman and Republican Senator Gen Olson. Together, Senators Saltzman and Olson returned to the Minnesota legislature and initiated literacy hearings in Minnesota’s Senate Education Subcommittee. A number of people, including Mr. Alexander, testified that children were not adequately prepared to learn to read largely because teachers were not adequately trained in colleges of education to teach reading.
Minnesota's Reading Task Force
Karen Balmer, Executive Director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching, the governmental board that licenses teachers, attended one of the hearings. She asked the Senators if they would halt the hearings because a Reading Task Force had been commissioned by the Board of Teaching. The Senators agreed to postpone the hearings as long as they could appoint representation on the Task Force. In January, 2007, Susan Thomson, a leader of Moms on a Mission—a grassroots reading advocacy group—and Mr. Alexander were appointed to the Task Force.
The charge of the Task Force was to review the licensure standards for any teacher who teaches reading in a Minnesota public school. Because of the critical need to have students reading at grade level by fourth grade, Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander joined the Early Childhood and Elementary Licensure Committee, one of five categories involving reading.
Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander brought evidence-based research and passion to a Task Force that was largely comprised of university professors who were comfortable with the status quo. Because of differences of opinion between Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander and the rest of the task force, the original one-year commitment turned into a three-year responsibility. The professors on the committee flatly disagreed that there was a problem with the way teacher candidates were being trained to teach reading, and they would not agree with the new standards for licensure proposed by Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander.
After a year of negotiation, it became clear that the process was not going to move forward, and Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander were prepared to offer a minority opinion to the Board of Teaching. Karen Balmer, the facilitator of the Task Force, however, wanted a unanimous recommendation from the group so the Task Force members went back to work.
Because the Reading Task Force process had stalled, Senators Saltzman and Olson reopened the literacy hearings during the 2008 legislative session. At these hearings, parents, public school teachers, and students provided compelling testimony that students were not learning to read because teachers were not adequately prepared by institutions of higher education to teach reading.
Introduction of a Literacy Bill
The testimony was so powerful that Saltzman and Olson, with strong support from local and national reading experts and advocacy from the growing Moms on a Mission advocacy group, wrote a literacy bill that was introduced in both the Senate and the House during the 2008 legislative session. While there was strong support in the Senate for the bill, higher education and the teachers union were able to block the bill in the House.
However, the literacy bill’s legislative success in the Senate gave Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander momentum within the Reading Task Force. By the end of 2008, the professors on the Task Force had agreed to most of the recommendations made by Ms. Thomson and Mr. Alexander. The literacy bill was reintroduced during the 2009 legislative session with strong support and involvement of local and national reading experts.
A Legislative Success
Remarkably, by the end of the legislative session, the literacy bill had passed both the House and the Senate, and the Governor signed the bill into law. The bill that passed requires that scientifically-based reading instruction be used in the classroom and that new teaching candidates pass an assessment that reflects scientifically-based reading instruction.
The efforts behind the new law also ensured that Ms. Thomson’s and Mr. Alexander’s recommendations to the Reading Task Force were ultimately accepted by the Task Force and unanimously approved by the entire Board of Teaching. As a result, teacher candidates in early childhood and elementary school now have to pass a new state assessment that tests their knowledge of the new reading standards. This should mean better prepared new teachers.
Still Work to be Done
Unfortunately, the teachers’ union successfully blocked the requirement that teachers with existing licenses pass this same assessment as well. This does raise the concern that new teachers going into schools for their first teaching jobs will be overwhelmed by the status quo and misguided teaching practices.
Groves Academy’s literacy work now focuses on ensuring that districts implement scientifically-based reading instruction for all students, and that all teachers be given the professional development required to ensure that our children become proficient readers. While this is a significant task, there is growing momentum within the community for addressing the issue.