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Indiana devotes $111M to reverse 10-year decline in reading scores

Reading proficiency among Indiana school children has declined steadily for 10 years to the point where nearly 1 in 5 children completing third grade cannot read. To reverse the trend, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced on Thursday, August 18, a $111 million spending program aimed at achieving 95% reading proficiency in five years.

“Today’s a big day for the state of Indiana,” Holcomb said, adding that the investment represented planting a flag in the ground to mark the state’s determination to change. “We are committed,” he said.

Third-grade reading proficiency, as measured by the IREAD-3 assessment, peaked at 91.4% a decade ago.

“Since the 2012-2013 school year, it has been on a decline,” Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner told The Center Square. “When we hit the year of COVID, it caused a further decline. So today we are at 81.6%, which we announced at the August state board of education meeting.”

The spending program, announced at Eastside Elementary School in Anderson, includes up to $85 million from Lilly Endowment and $26 million in funding from within the IDOE budget. Ongoing funding will be a matter for the legislature to consider, Holcomb said. About 50% of the state budget is devoted to education.

Funds will be used to implement a science-based approach to teaching reading.

“The science of learning is based a lot on how students learn, a lot on brain research, and it’s really an increase in phonics and phonemic awareness,” Jenner said.

The National Reading Panel identified five pillars of this approach in a report titled “Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction.” Those pillars are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

IDOE officials pointed out this is not a curriculum but an approach to teaching, and many of these elements may already be in place in classrooms. The current effort will be aimed at maximizing these approaches to best help students.

Val Scott, principal at Eastside Elementary, was enthusiastic about the announcement. “Phenomenal. I can’t say enough about it,” she told The Center Square. “It was really well thought out. It was not just thrown together. It tells you what a priority it is for our entire state.”

Scott said she was pleased to see the spending included training for teachers in the science of reading, an approach she characterized as an intentional focus on fundamentals. “If I can’t get that phonemic awareness in the beginning, how do I teach a student to read,” she said, adding that this approach will better help teachers identify and target deficiencies in learning.

Funds will be used primarily for increasing the number of schools having instructional coaches focused on reading from 54 to 600 throughout Indiana; stipends of up to $1,200 for teachers who participate in professional development on the science of reading; targeted support for students who need extra help to improve reading skills; and the creation of a literacy center within the IDOE focused on the science of reading strategies.

Others reacted with less enthusiasm. “I’m gratified the Lilly Endowment wants to make a substantial contribution to help young children learn to read,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said in a statement. “Perhaps the biggest contribution they’re making is by shining a light on a failure of our state to address this problem.”

Delaney added, “A cynic might ask, ‘How did we get in the position where our Department of Education and school districts need to be kicked in the pants by donors before they do their job?’”

Recently, a number of states have moved to strengthen or mandate the science-based approach. Some 18 states and the District of Columbia said they would use American Rescue Plan funding to support instruction in evidence-based approaches to early literacy, according to Education Week. At least four states have enacted laws or regulations requiring that teachers use teaching techniques based on evidence for how children learn to read.

This fall New York City will require schools to adopt a phonics-based reading program.

This article originally appeared on The Center Square.

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