Can Teaching Be Improved by Law?

At least twenty states have passed or are considering measures related to the science of reading.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, center, and lawmakers gather Wednesday, March 10, 2021, for a news conference to announce that leaders of the state legislature and the governor have reached an agreement to reopen the state's K-12 public schools to full-time daily instruction in Raleigh.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, center, and lawmakers gather Wednesday, March 10, 2021, for a news conference to announce that leaders of the state legislature and the governor have reached an agreement to reopen the state’s K-12 public schools to full-time daily instruction in Raleigh. Gov. Cooper recently signed the “Excellent Public Schools Act” into law.

If there’s one lesson education policymakers might have learned in the last twenty-five years, it’s that it’s not hard to make schools and districts do something, but it’s extremely hard to make them do it well. There has always been at least a tacit assumption among policy wonks that schools and teachers are sitting on vast reserves of untapped potential that must either to be set free from bureaucratic constraints or shaken out of its complacency. Those of us who have spent lots of time in classrooms watching teachers trying their best and failing (or trying hard and failing ourselves) often find those assumptions curious. Compliance is easy. It’s competence that’s the rub.

Last week, North Carolina’s Democratic governor signed into law a bill that mandates, among other things, that schools in the state use a phonics-based approach to reading instruction. Dubbed the “Excellent Public Schools Act,” the law, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support, requires teachers to be trained in the “science of reading” and to base their reading instruction on it. Despite my inherent skepticism that policy alone can move classroom practice in the right direction, I’m having a hard time finding fault with what North Carolina has done.

I’m generally not keen to impose my preferred flavors of curriculum and instruction on schools, despite some well-defined opinions on such matters. But if there’s an exception, it’s early childhood literacy with curriculum and instruction grounded in the science of reading. The foundational role of proficient decoding and comprehension in academic success suggests that, while it might make sense to let a thousand flowers bloom in curriculum, instruction, and school models—vive la différence!—we have no more important shared task than getting kids to the starting line of basic literacy from the first days of school. So if I have any lingering technocratic impulses left, they’re limited to early childhood literacy and the “science of reading.” But the open question is whether literacy laws—from mandating phonics to third grade retention policies—can have a beneficial effect on classroom practice.

The kinds of measure that North Carolina has adopted are becoming increasingly common. My Fordham colleague Melissa Gutwein has identified at least twenty states (see Table 1) that have passed or are considering measures related to the science of reading. Some, like the new North Carolina law, require teachers to use instruction grounded in the science of reading, or require districts to use science-of-reading-based curricula. Others require teacher prep programs to teach the science of reading. The National Council on Teacher Quality recently reported that more than half of the elementary teacher prep programs it monitors and evaluates now embrace reading science, up from 35 percent just seven years ago. It’s taken at least a half century of advocacy against stiff resistance from the education establishment, the progressive left, and others, but without question, the “science of reading” is on the march, including through statehouses.


Table 1. States that have passed or are considering measures related to the science of reading

Table 1. States that have passed or are considering measures related to the science of reading


Still, not every literacy expert is convinced that we can legislate our way to reading proficiency. Among the skeptics is Tim Shanahan, the highly regarded emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who once was in charge of reading for the Chicago Public Schools. He notes that “there are only three things that improve reading achievement,” as far as he can tell: increasing the amount of productive reading instruction provided, ensuring that key elements of curriculum (phonemic awareness, phonies, fluency, etc.) are taught sufficiently, and improving the quality of instruction. “There are a handful of buttons that can be pushed policy-wise to try to get those three things to happen,” Shanahan tells me via email. But states that have adopted third grade retention policies and other literacy-focused measures have seen no improvement in reading achievement.

The current wave of “science of reading” laws is reminiscent of states that emulated Florida’s policy, nearly twenty years ago, to retain kids in third grade who weren’t reading proficiently. “Florida mandated that kids get taught what would today be referred to as the elements of the ‘science of reading,’” Shanahan points out. If your theory of change was that third grade retention policies would prompt schools and districts to provide more effective learning supports for teachers and students, that mostly hasn’t happened. States that jumped on the third grade retention bandwagon “adopted the retention part of the policy, but left out the curriculum, professional development, leadership guidance, etc. that had bolstered achievement in Florida,” he explains.

Yesterday it was Florida, today it’s Mississippi that is the apple of various state lawmakers’ eyes. But here, too, Shanahan notes the state has been chipping away at its low literacy levels for years, using federal, state, and private funding to ensure that Mississippi teachers were addressing the problems effectively.

Kymyona Burk echoes many of Shanahan’s points about effective literacy instruction and interventions, but is more sanguine about the role of state policy. And she had a front-row seat as Mississippi transformed itself into the literacy “it” state and one of the only bright spots in NAEP in recent years. Burk was the state literacy director at the Mississippi Department of Education, where she led the implementation of its heralded Literacy-Based Promotion Act. She now advises states on their literacy practices as Policy Director for Early Education at ExcelinEd, where she advocates for a comprehensive K–3 reading policy that “establishes supports and intensive reading interventions” in early elementary school to ensure grade-level reading by third grade. That playbook includes science of reading training for teachers, ongoing professional learning and literacy coaching, and strong assessment and parent notification provisions.

Burk, who is working with a network of sixteen states in her current role, gives the North Carolina law high marks for adhering to most of the “fundamental principles” that ExcelInEd sees as critical to effective K–3 reading policy. “The only component I did not see in their legislation deals with literacy coaches,” she tells me. According to Burk, “deploying boots on the ground” was a key component of the state’s success. “Once the teachers go to their training, and they’re back in the classrooms with their own students, who is there to really assist them in transferring what they learned that from the theory to practice?” she explains. Coaches, particularly in the lowest-performing schools, have been essential to Mississippi’s results.

Mississippi, not incidentally, was very much on the minds of North Carolina legislators in passing the Excellent Public Schools Act, according to Terry Stoops, who directs the Center for Effective Education at Raleigh’s John Locke Foundation. “There was some mounting pressure on legislators to try to replicate what Mississippi is doing,” he says. Lawmakers were “thinking that if Mississippi can move the needle on literacy instruction and literacy proficiency, then why can’t North Carolina? There’s an interesting state by state competitiveness going on.” That impulse, too, can only help efforts to improve reading outcomes.

Laws are a blunt instrument and not likely to improve classroom practice from afar. But for now, I choose to be guardedly optimistic that there is a productive role for policymakers, if not in mandating specific curricula, training, and support, then at least in establishing something of a market-making expectation that what schools do in the early grades must be grounded in the “science of reading,” and that every other impulse and interest—from ed schools to professional learning organizations to curriculum developers and publishers—should be singing from that same hymnal. Policymakers can build and sustain the conditions necessary, most particularly patience, for sound early reading practice to put down deeper roots and become the default setting in public education. Skepticism remains a virtue. But if the last few years’ worth of momentum leads to a broad and well-informed consensus about what effective reading instruction looks like—and builds the political will to stick with it for the long haul—it might yet be a winning formula.

With reporting by Melissa Gutwein.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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