All States Need to Shore Up Literacy Instruction After the Detroit Decision

There has been a lot written about the 6th Circuit’s decision in Detroit’s right-to-literacy case, the latest in a long line of lawsuits bringing state and federal constitutional challenges to the quality of education opportunities provided to public school students. The court held that the Constitution protects a right to a minimal education opportunity: the right to literacy. This decision is an unmistakable signal to schools and districts about the importance of meaningful literacy instruction. 

And although the facts in this case are specific to Detroit’s unique relationship with Michigan’s state government, that will not excuse another state or district from falling short in their obligation to provide an education that offers a genuine opportunity for literacy.

three young black girls and one black adult looking at a table of books, Knight Arts Challenge Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History The Charles H. Wright will use the arts to foster an interest in reading by weaving interactive cultural experiences throughout the museum’s Children’s Book Fair.

Photo of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History via Knight Foundation on Flickr

The path to good literacy instruction isn’t a mystery. There is relevant science and resources to help schools, districts, and states. Good instruction is described in a set of practice guides produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which are based on reviews of research, the experiences of practitioners, and the expert opinions of a panel of nationally recognized experts. States and districts can encourage the use of these resources by administrators, teachers, school specialists, and families.

To identify which specific programs and interventions have been effective at improving student outcomes, state and district leaders can search the What Works Clearinghouse, with particular attention to programs that have been independently evaluated. Reading interventions may impact a variety of outcomes, including alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. Since some interventions may be more effective than others for certain types of literacy skills, states might encourage the use of needs assessments to better understand which interventions are the best fit for a school or district.

Implementing such interventions effectively requires a comprehensive approach, with alignment to teacher professional development and evaluation systems. In Mississippi, leaders attribute recent reading gains on NAEP to higher standards, rigorous assessment, and an evolved accountability system, in conjunction with transformations in the state’s approach to literacy. In Florida, state-funded instructional coaches were used to support improvements in reading achievement. States and districts can use evaluation frameworks to clarify what good literacy instruction looks like, and support job-embedded professional development that will help teachers enact such instruction.    

States and districts need not wait until school is back in session to promote literacy. One low-cost, home-based summer reading intervention was found to be particularly beneficial for children in high-poverty elementary schools. Text messaging parents of preschoolers is another low-cost intervention that has shown promising results.   

Even before the recent ruling, Detroit Public Schools Community District adopted a new curriculum and more rigorous phonics coaching for students who struggle to read. These are important steps, but to dramatically change student outcomes, state leaders should attack the challenge on multiple fronts. Families and schools can work in tandem to improve equitable access to educational opportunities that will foster literacy. This work pursues one shared goal: improving the life outcomes of our nation’s youth by improving their education opportunities.