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Georgia leaders propose $11.3M to improve reading as some lawmakers seek a more aggressive approach

Posted at 4:56 PM, Jan 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-14 16:56:46-05

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia education officials want to provide literacy coaches to help train teachers to improve reading instruction, even as some prominent lawmakers say the state Department of Education isn't doing enough to implement a literacy law passed last year. Georgia's effort to help children read better is one example of many nationwide as the “science of reading” shakes up teaching and learning. For example, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is pushing to retrain teachers and revamp what children learn there, proposing $10 million to support the effort. Georgia is a relative latecomer to literacy reform, with legislators passing a law last year mandating that each district must retrain teachers by August 2025. The law is modeled on a decade-long Mississippi effort that saw that state sharply improve what had been bottom-tier reading scores. Mississippi modeled its effort on Florida. A majority of Georgia’s young students are behind in reading. The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress found 32% of fourth graders were proficient in reading, about the same as nationwide. State Superintendent Richard Woods prefers a different measure, which finds just more than 40% of third-grade students are ready. That number shows improvement later, with 60% of students ready by eighth grade. In his budget proposed Thursday, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp included $11.3 million for literacy efforts, including $6.2 million for literacy coaches and more than $5 million for a screening test to detect dyslexia and other problems as early as kindergarten. The money, recommended by Woods, would be the first significant state spending on the law. Most experts now agree effective teaching should include detailed instruction on the building blocks of reading, including letter sounds and how to combine them into words. But Georgia's 181 school districts have broad autonomy to chart their own course. Some districts have long followed favored methods, while others have more recently adopted them, fueled in part by kids who lost ground during the pandemic. Because the Georgia Department of Education doesn't closely track what schools are teaching, it's possible some districts haven't even gotten started. A survey by the Sandra Dunagan Deal Center for Early Language and Literacy could help answer that question by spring. Some lawmakers say Woods, an elected Republican, isn't doing enough. “I would love to see the Department of Education embrace and champion the plan for literacy that’s been pushed by the literacy council and by the legislature,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, told The Associated Press. “I don’t feel that they’re ready and there on that.” For example, lawmakers are displeased that the state Board of Education, at Woods' recommendation, approved 16 different screening tests in July. The Deal Center later evaluated three of those screeners as weak, and lawmakers said in a December hearing that so many screeners will make it impossible to compare districts. The state is also developing its own screener that will be provided free of charge to districts. Woods touts online training classes that the department is providing through the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy, noting 600 teachers have enrolled. “One of the things we’re trying to focus on is providing our teachers with the resources and support that they need to become effective reading teachers within the classroom,” Woods told reporters this month at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education meeting. But Georgia has more than 27,000 K-3 teachers. Mississippi, by contrast, retrained all existing teachers over two summers. Such an effort could cost Georgia more than $60 million, the state estimated last year. And the coaching money won’t reach most teachers directly. Instead it will go toward hiring 32 regional coaches and paying stipends to school district personnel who lead literacy efforts. Coaching is seen as essential because it helps teachers put learning into practice. “The research shows just going to workshops, just hearing talks and participating in webinars, that’s unlikely to change behavior," said Lindee Morgan, executive director of the Deal Center. A recent survey by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement found 58% of 149 districts already employ at least one literacy coach, with more than 500 working statewide. But Morgan said it's unclear what those coaches are doing. “Have they been trained in structured literacy?" she asked. "Have they been trained in effective coaching strategies?” Matt Jones, Woods’ chief of staff, said the regional coaches are intended to bring “consistency and standardization” to coaching methods. He said the department may later seek to hire coaches to send directly into schools. But some lawmakers could try to legislate a more aggressive approach this year. “The legislature is yelling ‘Literacy is the most important thing,'" Tillery said in December.