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Meeting the man on the street


• ExcelinEd

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Larry Tihen. He was Superintendent of Lee County School District in southwest Florida when the Sunshine State implemented its comprehensive K-3 Reading policy in 2003. 

Dr. Tihen is also an instructor for ExcelinEd’s free #EdPolicyOnline course on K-3 Reading.


student at desk
A few years ago, a young man stopped me on the street. I didn’t recognize him, but he knew me.

“I was in your wife’s intensive reading class because I didn’t know how to read,” he explained. “It changed my whole life.”

He told me that he was a high school graduate now with a job and a family. He was happy. And he wanted to thank my wife for what she had done—for changing his life by helping him learn to read.

Experiences like this remind me of just how important it is to fight for our students’ futures, and how important it is to make sure each child receives the gift of literacy.

many of our middle...quoteIn 2003, Florida stepped up and established a comprehensive K-3 reading policy to ensure all students are able to read by the end of third grade. This policy challenged my school district to reevaluate the way we taught this fundamental subject.

We realized that many of our middle and high school students’ academic problems began as early as kindergarten. From kindergarten to third grade, students learn to read. In fourth grade and beyond, they use reading as a tool to learn. If a student falls behind early on in reading, they often don’t catch up; instead they often fall further behind each year.

Florida’s new reading policy prompted my school district to begin working in kindergarten to ensure all students entered fourth grade with strong reading skills. This, we knew, would set the stage for students to enter each new grade as capable learners.

To begin, we started tracking students’ progress through diagnostic and formative assessments. Then we gave teachers more time to address students’ diverse needs by increasing reading instruction by 30 minutes a day, with even more time for struggling readers. We also began using retention as a last resort for students who needed more time to develop their reading skills.

These and other changes made a huge impact on students. On the third-grade reading assessment, our majority students went from a 44 percent passage rate to over 85 percent. Our minority students increased from around 22 percent to 75 percent!

his brothers and sisters quoteBest of all, we knew students were moving from grade to grade with the reading skills they would need to succeed at the next level. Because of Florida’s K-3 reading policy, student learning is improving across the state and graduation rates for all student groups are rising. We’re setting more kids up for success—not failure.

The successful, literate young man I discussed earlier is a powerful reminder of why early literacy is so important. His brothers and sisters, he told me, faced a different fate. They passed through our system before Florida’s K-3 reading policy was implemented. They never made it to graduation because we didn’t reach them soon enough.

As parents, educators and education advocates, we need to remember that we’re fighting for the futures of our kids. They are worth it. And they deserve our best efforts.

Dr. Larry Tihen is former Superintendent of Lee County School District in southwest Florida. Dr. Tihen is the primary author of the Florida Reading Model, and was the first recipient of the Florida Literacy Leader of the Year Award from the Florida Department of Education. Dr. Tihen has served on many state committees, including those for the design of Educational Leadership and Teacher Certification Assessments. He was also a collaborator on the literacy essentials and reading network for the state of Florida. He has served as a principal; director of exceptional student education; executive director of curriculum, staff development, quality and continuous improvement; and teacher of graduate-level courses at two universities.


Visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library to learn how your state can prioritize literacy and equip each student to become a strong reader, or contact Cari@ExcelinEd.org to learn how ExcelinEd can support your state.

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