Education Reform Now CT touts benefits of Right to Read Act

Sara Calechnan gets her classroom ready at Orange Avenue School in Milford before the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Sara Calechnan gets her classroom ready at Orange Avenue School in Milford before the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Saul Flores/Hearst Connecticut M

Some public schools in the state have stated they are going to be seeking a waiver to the Right to Read Act. Still, Amy Dowell, director of Education Reform Now's Connecticut chapter, said there are school districts that are embracing the changes.

"There are some superintendents who have been vocally opposed to this, but there are a number of superintendents that are supportive of the change that has been speaking more publicly and districts that are moving in the direction of implementation and some with a lot of enthusiasm," said Dowell. "School districts haven't been required to submit their intentions right now, but New Haven, Fairfield, Stamford, Bridgeport and others are starting to make the change."

Initially dubbed the "Right to Read" act, the legislation calls for $12.8 million in spending to ensure that school districts where students are falling behind can hire reading coaches.

"One of the reasons this legislation passed at the time it passed is because it coordinated with the ESSER dollars coming in," she said. "The COVID relief dollars were designated specifically for academic reasons."

Dowell hopes there might be an opportunity to find new resources to help districts adopt these programs heading into the new legislative session.

"But districts buy new programs all the time in all different subjects, and they spend their resources how they want to spend them for the most part," she said. "This is one of those situations of if there's a will, there's a way."

As the lead advocate on the bill, Dowell said her organization wanted to address the reading gap in Connecticut.

"Connecticut has a significant gap in how students of color and special needs students in our schools are performing," she said. "But we have seen that we are having low performance from traditionally non-challenged students in our schools, and we had a drop-off in reading comprehension in the third grade."

According to the State Board of Education, only 54 percent of Connecticut public school students in Grade 3 were proficient in English Language Arts on the Common Core aligned Smarter Balanced assessment, meaning 17,000 students were not proficient.

During the pandemic, the rate declined to 47 percent in Grade 3, meaning nearly 19,000 students were not proficient.

"Sometimes education programs come in waves and fads, and unfortunately, balanced literacy, the way most students learned how to read here in Connecticut, was very hot and very well established in many districts," said Dowell. "But cognitive scientists have long known that children don't learn from looking at pictures or guessing. Instead, they learn from explicit phonics."

One of the pieces of the waiver program the district can apply is if their program is aligned with the court requirements and legislation.

"I think a lot of districts were hopeful that they could keep doing what they were doing and apply for the waiver," she added. "The reality is that if you're using a balanced literacy approach in your school district, you will not be permitted to continue using it."

There are school districts that have tutoring, but it is masking the overall issue and not addressing it head on, Dowell said.

Dowell said the state wants to make a significant change with the Right to Read Act because they have seen students who struggle to read in the fourth grade can lead to increased behavioral issues and special education diagnosis in school districts.

"What we really need to do is make a significant change, and we have to do it in every school," she said. "Because the idea that a wealthy district will not have all the same rules as a less recourse district is elitist and wrong."

There are now seven programs available for school districts to choose from, and Dowell said some districts are piloting the programs.

"We passed the bill in 2021, so districts have had plenty of time to prepare because they knew it was coming," she said. "It is a big undertaking, and their feedback is important to the process, but it's also something that can't wait."