Three Principles to Guide Governors on Literacy

In October 2013, the National Governors Association released A Governor’s Guide to Early Literacy: Getting All Students Reading by Third Grade. In it, we laid out five “Policy Actions” that are critical components of a comprehensive state strategy for improving early elementary reading proficiency.

The early education team at NGA spent more than a year scanning state legislation, reviewing the research literature, and learning from research and policy experts to develop this guide. This process highlighted three lessons that I think are important guiding principles for state leaders as they continue to tackle this challenge.

  • Follow the research. Like any other field, education has its share of issues about which research points to mixed or ambiguous findings. While we don’t know everything about what leads to reading proficiency, we know quite a lot. Unfortunately, in areas where we found strong research consensus, we observed that policies have been slow to follow the research. Three areas where policymakers can close the research-policy gap are: the need for a more holistic approach to language and literacy development, the importance of the years before kindergarten, and the capacity of families and educators to support children from early childhood through 3rd grade.
  • Third grade reading is more than an education challenge. It is clear from the research that language and literacy development starts at birth, way before children start school. It is also clear that professionals outside the education system can play a significant role in promoting reading proficiency, especially among at-risk populations of children. A comprehensive state strategy needs to invest in early care and education, health care, higher education, and library systems (to name just a few) so that they are all able to contribute significantly to the solution. Of course, the education system still has a huge, perhaps even the primary, role to play. But, research shows that getting children who are most behind on track results from an interdisciplinary approach, and policymakers need to treat this endeavor as such.
  • It’s all about the adults. Those of us who work on children’s issues often like to say that it’s all about the kids. Not to take anything away from that sentiment, but sometimes, we should also remind ourselves that children can’t get to where we want them to be if the adults around them – parents, teachers, caregivers – don’t have the knowledge, skills, and resources to support their language and literacy development. Unfortunately, investments in adults have not been sufficiently robust, sustained, and research-based. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners alike lament the shortcomings in our teacher preparation and professional development policies and investments. Our report uncovered some promising strategies to strengthen educators’ capacity – both in early childhood and in early elementary settings. For parents, they need more than just information, which is the focus of many efforts. They need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice research-based strategies that they can use in their everyday lives. In a way, building adults’ capacity is about policy implementation. Passing legislation or setting policies about teacher preparation, professional development, or family engagement is just the beginning. Policymakers need to ensure that communities and school districts have adequate resources – experts, tools and materials, knowledge, funding, etc. – to actually reach the adults who work with children every day and help them develop the skills they need so that they can promote greater language and literacy outcomes in children.

Whether a state has implemented significant reforms to improve early reading proficiency, these three principles can serve as guideposts for policymakers who are interested in refining or developing a comprehensive strategy to improve early literacy and reading proficiency.

Albert Wat, Senior Policy Analyst, National Governors Association (December 11, 2013)