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When it comes to reading, money talks

• Cari Miller

Minnesota passed a reading law two years ago to financially reward performance in elementary schools. This law based funding on both the percent of students that made learning gains in reading from third to fourth grade, and the percent of third grade students whose statewide reading test scores showed that they were proficient. This action placed a command focus on reading and recognized the fundamental importance of literacy achievement by creating an incentive for educators.

Reading instruction should be the primary focus of kindergarten through third grade, as third grade is the year that students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Rewarding schools for third grade reading proficiency serves as a tangible reminder to adults in the system that reading is the priority in K-3. Rewarding schools for learning gains of students moving from third grade to fourth grade continues the laser-like focus on reading and allows schools to benefit from their good work with lagging students. Reading is not simply a subject; it is the foundation for all learning, and this reading law established this loud and clear.

Recently, Governor Dayton proposed eliminating the reading proficiency component of the law, basing the performance funding entirely on learning gains from third to fourth grade. While growth is good – actually becoming proficient is important too. The governor’s change would be a huge mistake. Dramatic improvements are easier to show among those who know little. A two-hundred percent increase in vocabulary is easier to achieve with a student who knows one word, than it is to achieve with a student who knows ten-thousand words. Thus, schools that have failed to bring their students to third grade reading proficiency are those that would most frequently be rewarded for showing dramatic growth between grades 3 and 4.

It is often said that good intentions don’t make good policy, and this change would create perverse incentives for teachers and administrators to move their focus away from early literacy. This action would support bad practice, and send a message – “We don’t care about the learning that takes place K-3, we just care that learning gains are made from grade 3 to grade 4.”


About the author

Cari Miller

Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of Early Literacy for ExcelinEd. She works hand in hand with states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy, and she supports state departments with effective policy implementation. Cari is a former elementary teacher and reading coach. She also served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in other capacities, including: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. Her sole mission is to improve student reading achievement across the nation.