State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller (opinion): A right to modern reading curricula

State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-27, speaks to supporters as votes are tallied on Election Day.

State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-27, speaks to supporters as votes are tallied on Election Day.

File photo

Reading is about to change in a big way in Connecticut K-3 classrooms.

Connecticut recently released a list of six evidence-based, state-approved early literacy curricula. From this list, districts must implement at least one program within the next school year. It will be a heavy lift for those currently using curricula that have not made the cut, but in the end, it will be worth it for the success of our children’s future.

So why have we required this change? Simply put, the approach to early literacy that most Connecticut districts favor, “Balanced Literacy,” is ineffective for too many students.

On Connecticut’s most recent standardized assessment, only 46.7 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts. If we were grading the effectiveness of Balanced Literacy in our state, it would get an “F.” It has also been consistently discredited over the decades by both cognitive scientists and curriculum experts nationwide.

I know firsthand how a quality education can open the doors to opportunity. A teacher, seeing my potential early on, helped open those doors for me.

It breaks my heart that many students who lack the proper instruction to build foundational literacy skills today will struggle for the rest of their academic careers, and too many amazing teachers have not been trained to help all students build that academic foundation in their classrooms.

The good news is that we know how to get literacy right — using the “Science of Reading.” This body of research tells us how brains process reading and, among other things, that we should explicitly teach students how to sound out the letters that make up words. This lays a groundwork that will empower them to eventually read and learn independently across all subjects.

In 2013, Mississippi famously overhauled its approach to literacy and aligned it to the Science of Reading. By 2019, Mississippi had made more progress than any other state in fourth- and eighth-grade achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Now, Connecticut is among several states to have followed in those footsteps. It is a considerable point of pride for our legislature, the Connecticut State Department of Education, and this administration that we have all committed to doing the hard, systemic work that will make schools more successful for students. It is particularly gratifying for members of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, who have been advocating for this effort for 10 years.

The “Right to Read” bill that I sponsored went through a democratic process that began in the Joint Committee on Education in 2021. It was then the subject of a public hearing, during which members of the committee heard testimony from constituents across the state — who, by and large, were enthusiastically supportive. Among them were the dean of the UConn Neag School of Education, the president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, urban superintendents, district-level curriculum professionals, classroom teachers, parents, literacy experts and researchers.

Since the passage of the “Right to Read” legislation, implementation has also been an open and inclusive process, overseen by a legislatively appointed Reading Leadership Implementation Council, whose members encompass a wide range of perspectives and experiences. The council’s nine meetings to date have all been publicly broadcast as these members have discussed how to bring the legislature’s intent to every K-3 classroom.

So far, they have designed a rubric to vet potential early literacy curricula and programs for state approval. They have held an open review period during which districts submitted programs to the state for consideration. Then, a 16-member team of experts, state staff and educational leaders evaluated each and every one of the 50-plus submissions at least twice. The end result is a list of state-approved early literacy curricula that meet rigorous standards for how to impart literacy skills to students.

In all, it has taken us over a decade to reach this point through a process that was transparent, robust and sorely needed. As the sponsor of Connecticut’s “Right to Read” legislation, I am committed to this effort for the long haul as it is clearly in the best interest of students. I know a great opportunity for kids when I see one and the “Right to Read” is certainly that!

State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller serves Senate District 27, representing Stamford and Darien. She is a member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee.