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A Vision for the Future of K-3 Reading Policy: Personalized Learning for Mastery

• Karla Phillips

young student reading


Envision a future where students’ unique strengths and interests are both respected and harnessed—where each child reaches his or her greatest potential. The education systems that will achieve this are characterized by individualized pathways, timely support, flexible pacing and data-based decision making.

This is why ExcelinEd advocates for policies that incentivize and enable educators to create bold, innovative models that move away from our traditional time- and place-bound systems and toward personalized learning.

In a high-quality personalized learning system that is competency-based, individual students progress as learning expectations are met. That sounds simple enough, but it contrasts with traditional education where students advance based on a predetermined curriculum schedule, seat-time or even age.

Students should have the freedom to accelerate through concepts and skills they have mastered while receiving more time and support where they need it. This approach liberates schools to comprehensively rethink the instructional model and opens the door to fundamental changes in schedules, calendars, assessment, grading and even the concept of traditional grade levels.

These are foundational disruptions to the familiar school system. We have learned from schools that have begun these transitions that the transformation will be incremental and will take time.

Yet in the meantime, America has a literacy crisis on her hands. What does this slow transition toward personalized learning for mastery mean for this immediate crisis? We believe the imperative to address evident illiteracy in our schools can’t wait for this transformation to occur. States, schools and educators must help each student learn to read by the end of third grade as soon as possible.

teacher and elementary students readingResearch has clearly demonstrated that the future success of our children—and our nation—depends on one of the most fundamental aspects of education: our schools’ ability to empower students to read.

Consider these facts:

  • Children who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • African-American and Hispanic students who are not proficient readers are six times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.
  • Seven out of every 10 prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level.
  • High school dropouts make up 75 percent of citizens receiving food stamps and 90 percent of Americans on welfare.

To address this crisis, ExcelinEd advocates for a comprehensive K-3 reading policy that has much in common with a solid personalized learning program, including:

  • Clearly defined K-3 learning objectives;
  • Robust formative assessments;
  • Timely, differentiated support; and
  • Ensuring that students master essential skills before advancing to the next level of learning.

The intent of the comprehensive K-3 reading policy is simple: ensure by the end of third grade that students have mastered the reading skills necessary to transition from learning to read to reading to learn in fourth grade. By requiring that students demonstrate reading proficiency before moving on, at its core, this policy is a competency-based approach.

One component of the K-3 reading policy is student retention. This remains controversial—but only because retention and promotion practices exist in a traditional system that remains based on fixed silos of age and grades.

In the future, we envision a more nuanced approach to learning and advancement. Therefore, we encourage states to establish pilot programs to enable new innovative systems that are ready to accommodate flexible and timely progression decisions based on clear learning objectives, transparent definitions of proficiency and a strong embedded formative assessment system. We envision a system where students can spend more time on the skills they have yet to master while moving forward in other academic areas where they excel.

ExcelinEd believes that high-quality personalized learning programs can rectify the false signals and mixed messages students and families receive from credits and diplomas that are based on seat-time and sometimes barely passing grades. These are the very problems that also fuel social promotion. Supporters of K-3 reading should now become our strongest advocates for personalized learning. By ensuring transparency of the concepts and skills required and providing clear definitions of success, personalized systems ensure students advance when they are ready to succeed—in reading and every other subject.

About the author


Cari-MillerCari Miller

Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of K-3 Reading for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former elementary teacher and reading coach, Cari most recently served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in various capacities: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. In all of her roles, her sole mission was to improve student reading achievement across the state.

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.