OPINION: There’s something about mandates ...

By Lorraine Connelly

There’s something about mandates that rub people the wrong way. This fall, despite an increase of COVID-19, the flu, and the RSV respiratory illness impacting children, Governor Ned Lamont refused to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in public school buildings. We should expect to see the same resistance to a new mandate slated to go into effect this July 1 — The Right to Read Act. In June 2021, the Connecticut Legislature passed legislation systemizing statewide reading curriculum programs for students from kindergarten through third grade.

Even before the pandemic upended normal patterns of teaching and learning, data collected by the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) indicated that by third grade, nearly half of public school students weren’t meeting grade-level expectations. Nationally, reading level indicators are even more frightening. According to The Nation’s Report Card: Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient in reading.

To address the widening gaps in our state’s reading proficiency, a newly established Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, based at UConn, will now be overseeing all of Connecticut’s local efforts related to literacy — from establishing reading curriculum requirements, to providing professional development, to hiring literacy coaches and coordinating with teacher preparation programs. The proposed curricula, based on the science of reading, is a phonics-based approach grounded in more than five decades of research.

Many school districts across the state, including Wallingford, neighboring Cheshire, and Chester are feeling the constraints of the July 1 deadline, and are opting to submit a waiver to the CSDE by February 28 allowing those districts to maintain their current reading pedagogy. At a December board of education meeting, Carrie LaTorre, Wallingford’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district will continue reviewing the state recommended plans, adding, “We firmly believe that we align with the science of reading and what we’re doing is best practice for students.” She noted, “We feel that after looking at some of these programs, in a lot of areas of what we’re doing, our materials are a better fit for our students.” The mandate is not funded by the state so districts will have to purchase the recommended reading programs from their current budgets. LaTorre has earmarked $700,000 for Wallingford.

Some districts are advocating for continuing with their home-grown curricula which, they assert, is successful. But state Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, a sponsor of the Right to Read legislation and a member of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, has stated that Connecticut’s hands-off approach “has failed to properly train all educators and to require proven, evidence-based practices and programs in every classroom.”

In 2012, under then-Gov. Dannell Molloy’s administration, the Connecticut Literacy Model was created to address the rising number of high school students who were graduating without knowing how to read and write. The program, piloted with the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, provided a multi-tiered approach to reading practices in those districts with the highest numbers of students struggling to reach grade-level expectations. The decade-long legislative effort to provide a more equitable approach to literacy learning continues.

Vice chairperson of the Connecticut state Board of Education and Wallingford resident Erin D. Benham worked in the Meriden Public School system for 36 years before retiring as a reading interventionist. Benham, who was first appointed to the state board by Gov. Malloy and recently renominated by Gov. Lamont, says “The legislation can be viewed as a mandate or a validation of an effective method for literacy instruction — one that’s backed up by data. It’s not enough to say 66% of kids are performing above grade level in a district; what about the other 34%? We must look at the whole picture.” One of the goals of the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success is to examine the bigger picture by reviewing data collected from reading assessments that will then be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic group to address remaining achievement gaps. Adds Benham, “We need to have faith in the Center’s director, Dr. Melissa Hickey, and the Reading Leadership Implementation Council to choose programs that are suitable.”

In view of the slew of recent reports about academic regression, student discipline problems, rising student absenteeism and increasing levels of teacher burnout, the stakes in education have never been higher. During the pandemic, some members of society refused to trust “the science” and ignored what the data was telling us about best health practices. It is at our own peril if we do not heed the mandate to prepare the next generation of readers for success in the classroom and beyond.

Lorraine Connellly is a writer and long-time Wallingford resident. She currently serves as a member of the Chester Board of Education.




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