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Stagnant reading performance by Florida students prompts talk of new approaches

For nearly two decades, Florida's public education system has heavily emphasized the role of reading — especially students' need to read for comprehension by the end of third grade.

Now, state leaders are conceding that the intense focus has not yielded the results they wanted. Third-graders' gains have stagnated in recent years, with more than 40 percent consistently below grade-level achievement.

Lawmakers aim to change the approach, in hopes of better results.

"We need to provide instruction that is meaningful for them," said Rep. Janet Adkins, the Fernandina Beach Republican who heads the House K-12 Subcommittee. "Any cookie-cutter approach is going to result in less-than-optimal outcomes. We need to do a better job of identifying struggling readers earlier and give them proper interventions."

The subcommittee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would tackle some of the key deficiencies Adkins and others see in the current system. Adkins, who is running for Nassau County school superintendent, has made the issue a priority for the 2016 legislative session.

The bill would:

• Require teacher training in "explicit, systematic, and multisensory reading strategies."

• Encourage districts to intervene earlier with struggling readers rather than wait for them to receive a failing grade.

• Require updates every two weeks to parents of struggling readers, and provide literacy instruction as well as strategies that can be used at home.

• Expand the state's early-warning system for struggling students to include elementary schools, and focus it on kids in kindergarten through third grade with a "substantial reading deficiency." The current warning system uses indicators such as attendance and discipline to pinpoint middle and high school students in danger of failing.

"This is not only a real step forward, I really particularly am gratified on the focus on involving parents," said state Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "This is a good bill that is going to help our students to read."

Adkins said parents' stories about their children with dyslexia drove her to act.

While the K-12 panel has talked about this subject since September, it has not come up in Senate conversations. That does not doom its chances, though.

"We will work with (Adkins) on this House priority," Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said. "I can't guarantee what the Senate will come up with. But we will work on it and have a committee hearing early."

He said he will file the current draft of the House bill as a starting point for the discussion.

In early hearings, House members were passionate about the issue of improving young children's success with reading. They also talked about helping low-performing students' parents, who might struggle with the skill themselves.

"We as a state have got to do a much better job," said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat who focused on the needs of inner-city children of color.

He said the state must implement programs that work, and not just conduct research while generations of youth do not get proper attention.

Experts also welcomed the attention to the issue.

"Improving reading achievement is a process that takes an investment in professional development, reducing group size, using data and ongoing professional development based upon data," said Stuart Greenberg, former executive director of Just Read Florida. "The intensity of the intervention must match the need of the students."

To get there takes dedication, Greenberg noted. "This is a long-term investment that we hope the Legislature will fully fund."

Holly Lane, director of the University of Florida Literacy Initiative, shared the cautious optimism. She advised the committee during its deliberations.

"I'm happy that there is more direction for what districts need to do for students with reading difficulties, but I wish it included more specificity around the concept of a 'substantial reading deficiency' and how this will be identified, especially in grades K-2," Lane said. "I worry that, as worded, it won't do enough to alter the current 'wait to fail' approach."

Lawmakers also need to make sure they aren't simply replacing one set of mandates for another, said Donna College, a senior language arts instructional specialist for Pasco County schools.

She noted that the state already requires reading endorsements for many teachers, yet that training and credential have not generated improvement.

"When you impose compliance, I don't think it's best for kids," College said.

She suggested that as lawmakers consider changes, they not isolate reading from other academic subjects. "It's only one piece of the problem," she said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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