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Navigating Changes to Literacy Programs Under ESSA

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By Todd Brekhus

While most of the nation's focus surrounding the Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) has been on the shift in power away from the federal government and the greater flexibility in meeting requirements, there are significant changes to literacy funding and programs that districts and states will need to address.

Nationally, reading performance among traditionally disadvantaged groups, including low-income students and English-language learners, has risen over the past 20 years, but significant achievement gaps with their white, affluent counterparts remain. Remedying this issue and ensuring equitable education were at the core of legislators' and advocacy groups' efforts to remake the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Meeting the Needs of ELLs

Some of ESSA's most striking departures from NCLB are funding and accountability requirements regarding ELLs. For the first time, states must include English-language proficiency as one of the three required academic indicators in their school accountability systems. There are also changes to how ELLs are classified and their test scores factored into school performance, giving schools and districts three years before they're held accountable for the achievement of English learners. Although both Title III and Title I will maintain funding streams for districts serving ELLs, accountability will shift from Title III to Title I, in the hopes of greater oversight in a bigger funding pool.

With English language learners continue their upward climb as the fastest-growing student population in U.S. schools, ESSA recognizes the urgent need to address the literacy achievement of this group. Districts that have successfully implemented digital libraries and personalized reading environments illustrate a pathway to improve students' reading skills, especially among non-native English speakers.

Recognizing a need to better support its growing population of English lanuguage learners, the Indiana Department of Education used Title I funds to purchase access to myON, a personalized digital literacy environment, for all of the state's migrant students. With the Region One Center for the state's Migrant Education Program seeing strong reading gains, the South Bend Community School Corporation implemented the literacy program as well for both in-school and after-school use with ELLs. Since the program begin in the fall of 2014, first- and third-grade students using the system each had at least a 40-point increase in their Lexile measurement. ELLs also read three times as many books as the students who do not have access to the system.

When students have access to a personal digital library -- with an array of books at their fingertips -- they're able to read books at their level and that match their interest. This boosts their motivation and enjoyment of reading. Digital books also have the capability to include reading supports that aid in comprehension and enable learners to monitor their own growth.

The challenge with most second-language learners is that they haven't had exposure to much oral-reading fluency, like native speakers. Without this, it's difficult for a student to connect with reading and even more difficult to master the ability to read fluently.

Vocabulary is another area where second-language learners often struggle. Authentic audio capabilities in digital libraries enable students to hear words or entire books read aloud to them, and they can often read the books in their native language to support dual-language approaches.

Struggling Readers and Impoverished Areas Get a Second Look

Another major change to literacy programs under ESSA is the elimination of Reading First (which had been de-funded in recent years) and the authorization of Literacy Education For All, Results for the Nation (LEARN). The program provides grants to states to develop or enhance comprehensive, "evidence-based" literacy instruction for all children from early childhood through grade 12 in high-need areas, with specific distribution of monies for each age/grade level group. Additional funding for reading and writing programs comes from the Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program, which allows for grants for literacy programs in low-income areas and can include school library services.

These two grant programs give districts the opportunity to promote equitable education. By implementing personalized digital literacy solutions such as myON, school communities can address the needs of all learners through anytime, anywhere access to digital books and support tools to meet each student's unique needs. Parents and families can also be given access to enhance the school-to-home connection and promote reading at home.

While the rules to implement ESSA, including the LEARN program, are still being worked out, there's no confusion that struggling readers in high-need areas remain a top priority for state and federal education departments, who now have new funding and accountability systems to support their efforts. Partnerships between community organizations, families, caregivers, school districts, and companies that have proven to increase reading achievement among struggling learners provide exemplary models for states and districts pursuing grant funding.

For example, the City of Orlando Families, Parks, and Recreation and Orange County Public Schools Title I Services partnered to focus on promoting reading throughout the summer to help build a community of successful and confident readers. A six-week summer reading academy for students from kindergarten to eighth grade provided research-based reading programs and technology-based instructional tools. This combination was designed to pinpoint students' needs and accelerate their interest in reading, all of which personalized literature for students and prevented the summer slide. Using myON, which was recently chosen by the White House as an innovative resource for maximizing summer learning, more than 70% of students enrolled were actively engaged in reading digital books, and they improved their Lexile scores by an average of 44%.

Another source of funding for literacy programs is Title I, which now has greater flexibility under ESSA. Prior to ESSA, a school could only use Title I funds for school-wide programs if the school had more than 40% of students coming from low-income backgrounds. Under ESSA, a state can grant a waiver from that 40% threshold if the proposed use of funds would strongly impact student achievement. With this new flexibility, Title I funds are expected to be used more heavily for schoolwide purchases, particularly for large-scale literacy programs.

Budewig Intermediate School in Houston's Alief ISD, where 82% of students who receive free or reduced lunch don't have books at home, has seen what a comprehensive literacy program can mean. In an effort to boost mastery of grade-level objectives and create a legacy of loving to read, the school rolled out a digital library program for all its students with Title I funds. In one year, students completed more than 16,000 books and gained significantly higher scores on state reading assessments. Personalized digital libraries coupled with high-quality reading and writing instruction empowers all students to read more, read often, and ultimately reach higher, no matter where they come from.

Todd Brekhus is president of myON, a business unit of Capstone, which offers a personalized reading environment that matches students' interests and reading level and tracks their reading growth. Prior to joining Capstone, Brekhus held executive positions in a range of education businesses, and spent eight years as a teacher, department chair, and technology director. You can connect with him on Twitter here.



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