As the state of Connecticut begins to implement its “Right to Read” legislation, Wilton Public Schools officials have announced they will be completing a waiver request to opt-out from participating in the reading and literacy program mandated by the law and overseen by the state. During last week’s (Jan. 12) Board of Education meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Chuck Smith explained that the district is having much more success with its own program.
During the meeting, Smith presented a review of the district’s English-Language Arts curriculum with K-8 Humanities Curriculum Coordinator Karen Brenneke, focusing on how Wilton approaches early literacy instruction. Brenneke put it in terms of “our children learning to read and how we in the Wilton Public Schools as an educational agency will ensure that all of our students secure unfinished learning from the pandemic to become skilled readers.”
The duo gave a presentation that asserted how far ahead of the state the Wilton district is in its own literacy program. In addition, the state has not been responsive in reviewing whether Wilton’s current curriculum satisfies state requirements. The state has also missed deadlines to provide information and materials that the district would need in order to budgetarily plan if it were to incorporate any of the state’s directives.
Not only would the state’s program be very costly to adopt, it would mean switching at a time when Wilton’s current curriculum implementation is well-underway. Brenneke said moving to any new program would set the district back.
“I do have concerns about how that will impact the progress we are currently making,” she said.
Superintendent Kevin Smith echoed that concern to the BOE members. “The intent of the legislation was to address the foundational reading skills for all kids. … The changes we’ve made to our curriculum are in fact addressing very discreetly those foundational skills and we’re seeing lots of success. That’s the punchline here.”
Chuck Smith went one step further in his assessment: “I would just add to that we’re not confident in those recommended programs that they will do any better and may in fact do worse than what we’re already doing.”
“Right to Read” Legislation Background
In June 2021, the CT Legislature passed the Right to Read Act, requiring the State Department of Education (SDE) to oversee all state and local efforts related to literacy. According to state officials, the state’s goal was to improve reading outcomes for all K-3 students in Connecticut through “evidence-based practice” referred to as “the Science of Reading.”
The legislation mandated that the state would set reading curriculum requirements for CT school districts, provide professional development, provide funding for districts with students falling behind to hire outside literacy coaches, and coordinate teacher training programs.
Brenneke noted the legislation is an “unfunded mandate” for Wilton — if the district did opt to follow the program, Wilton would not receive any state funding; instead state monies would be directed only to Alliance districts that the state considers “underperforming.”
The legislation created an entity called “The Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success” to oversee the program’s implementation. The Center would develop an “intensive reading instruction program” with “research-driven strategies” to improve student performance.
School districts would be required to notify the Center which approved evidence-based instructional models they would adopt, and which approved assessments the districts would use to assess students. [Editor’s note: the Center is led by a director who works with a 13-member Reading Leadership Implementation Council. Wilton Selectwoman Kim Healy is a member of that council.]
UPDATE, 2:15 p.m.—Healy emailed a comment to GMW: “I fully agree that this legislation is typical of what we see in CT with Democratic majority using government overreach or one size fits all approach instead of targeting the problems where they are. In this case, we see unacceptable reading levels in the Alliance districts (and others as well) and CT must address the problems where they are. This legislation was created, not by the regular legislative process, but was buried in an 800 page implementor bill. It did pass out of committee but was never debated on the house floor. Maybe if it had gone that route, the issues we are seeing now, may have been corrected. If Wilton does not qualify for a waiver, it would be almost guaranteed to be a unfunded mandate as most are.”
According to Chuck Smith and Brenneke, the Wilton School District had begun a review of its own ELA curriculum in 2020, on a long-established schedule to review all curriculum programs on a five-year cycle. Based on that review, the district was ready to adopt its revised ELA curriculum by July 2022. However the state still had not released any of its own reading curriculum strategies or models, and so Wilton moved ahead with its own plan.
The CT SDE and Center were three months late in releasing its program. It was also three months after Wilton had already moved forward with implementing its own curriculum. Brenneke said the state missed other deadlines which made decision-making on Wilton’s part “challenging.”
State Overreach without Results
Before this Right to Read program implementation, the state had been overseeing and monitoring the approximately 30 underperforming schools in the Alliance districts, particularly around literacy.
Chuck Smith indicated that the expansion of state oversight to all of the school districts in Connecticut through the “Right to Read” legislation appears to be an example of regulatory overreach by the state. Not only that, but the state hasn’t shown any evidence that its involvement is working.
“Across the state, 52% of the students who are [reading] below grade level are in the Alliance districts. The state is now expanding its reach to schools outside of the Alliance districts and yet they have not yet shown themselves to produce the results that they are seeking,” he said.
“None of these programs that they recommended have evidence that they are getting all of their students to grade level,” Chuck Smith continued. “As a matter of fact in the districts I have seen that use that, we are a much higher level of getting kids to grade level than they are.”
What’s more, because the mandated program is unfunded, it would also carry a hefty price tag if Wilton implemented it.
Although the district is going to submit an opt-out waiver, Wilton is beholden to evaluate how aligned the state-approved programs are to Wilton’s curriculum and goals for possible participation in the 2024-25 school year. District educators will evaluate the programs and educational resources with an eye toward next year’s budget process.
Brenneke recently received a sample kit of the instructional resources suggested by the State Dept. of Education.
“The cost of these materials is nearly half a million dollars for our grades in elementary school classrooms. This includes one year of digital access, which would need to be renewed annually and only two days of professional development for our teachers at the launch of the new program,” she said.
If Wilton’s waiver request is approved, the district could continue on its own chosen curriculum path.
“If they approve it? I’m assuming that we’re good,” Chuck Smith said.
“I can’t imagine having to reevaluate programs annually,” Kevin Smith added.
Brenneke’s message was that not only is the literacy curriculum built by Wilton educators substantive and effective, but it also predates what the state has created.
She reiterated that the basis of Wilton’s reading literacy and English language instruction is built upon a deep foundation of scientific and evidence-based research.
The district has a longstanding relationship with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College (TC). Wilton uses a TC-developed literacy program and continues to work with the organization in further refining and strengthening its curriculum based on ongoing research, the latest trends and data.
She said the district has been lauded for its approach to reading and literacy instruction by the Tri-State Consortium, an alliance of educators that conduct peer reviews of schools with the goal to advance teaching and learning. In 2019, a Tri-State Consortium review praised Wilton’s literacy approach, noting, “Any effort to translate the philosophy into a compliance checklist would not serve the district well.” Wilton was recognized for a “culture of literacy among students and a culture of reflective practice among teachers and specialists.”
Wilton’s 2020 curriculum review recommendations suggested the district focus on key areas that are echoed in the state’s program, which Brenneke pointed out “precede this unfunded legislative mandate in June … We’ve been steadfastly proceeding with this work in a fiscally responsible manner since the spring of 2020.”
One key example was a phonics program the district fully implemented in 2020, including a supplemental phonemic awareness curriculum and a screening and assessment program.
“Phonemic awareness is the ability of students to perceive and discriminate sounds. That’s probably the most important pre-reading skill our students can have,” Chuck Smith explained. “If that’s not intact, you can’t map an understanding of letters on top of that. So I’m very proud of the work they did with that.”
Brenneke shared data that Chuck Smith said showed great strides have been made by Wilton students with newer phonemic awareness instruction.
She recounted that in 2019, interventionists had to form small extracurricular groups of third graders to address gaps in rhyming, what Brenneke said was the “simplest” of the nine phonemic skills the district now teaches.
“Having third graders unable to produce or recognize rhymes was alarming, to say the least,” she said.
She contrasted that with one well-received data point: 99% of Wilton’s current third graders started the 2022-23 school year with their phonemic awareness “secured.”
Brenneke made other points that Wilton was several steps ahead of the state, using data to implement targeted, evidence-backed methods to address unfinished learning after the pandemic, as well as integrating revisions from Teacher’s College to units based on updated reading research — things the state didn’t recommend adopting until after Wilton had already done them.
Wilton aims for 80% of its students to read at grade level, and the district’s stance is supported by what Brenneke said was a “comprehensive and supportive intervention system” for students.
How Wilton Students are Doing
After a demonstration of how the curriculum is implemented in the K-8 classrooms, Brenneke moved into explaining whether Wilton’s curriculum is working.
Brenneke reported that in terms of post-pandemic learning recovery, Wilton’s findings mostly mirror nationwide trends. According to a brief published by NWEA, an organization that creates assessments to track student progress, the following has been observed nationally:
- Students lost less ground over the summer of 2022 compared to pre-pandemic trends. In fact, Brenneke said that Wilton educators did not see a “summer slide” in most grades over the past summer.
- Academic rebounding in reading and math continued in the fall of 2022; however, that rebounding is not even across school years and summers, especially in reading.
- The youngest students in the national sample — current third graders who were in kindergarten when the pandemic began — had the largest reading achievement gap and had the least rebounding nationwide. For Wilton, the cohort of concern for Brenneke is the current fourth-grade class, which she said is not rebounding as quickly; Wilton’s third graders are showing a “nice recovery.”
- Even with continued rebounding, student achievement nationwide remains lower than in a typical year and full recovery is still likely several years away.
In addition to the good news about Wilton’s third-grade students’ phonemic achievement, Brenneke pointed out other highlights:
- 74% of Wilton kindergarten students are at benchmark or higher in the area of foundational skills, as of Dec. 13, 2022
- 70% of Wilton first graders are at benchmark or higher in the area of foundational skills, as of Dec. 13, 2022
- 72% of Wilton second graders are at benchmark or higher in the area of foundational skills, as of Dec. 13, 2022
UPDATE, Jan. 23: Amy Dowell, the executive director of Education Reform Now CT reached out to GOOD Morning Wilton to say she was one of the lead advocates who worked on the Right to Read legislation. She sent the following comment in response to the Board of Education discussion: “The Right to Read legislation was passed in 2021 in an effort to ensure all students are supported in literacy instruction in our state, guided by very settled academic research about what works. From the data that was offered by the Wilton Public Schools, a full 30% of all first graders in the district are not meeting ELA benchmarks. In a district with this many resources, the numbers reinforce why the current programs are not meeting student need.”