Walters promises nation’s ‘most comprehensive’ reading plan

January 24, 2023

Ray Carter

Newly elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters promised lawmakers his administration will soon unveil “the most comprehensive reading plan in the country” to reverse the significant decline in student literacy that occurred under his Democratic predecessor, Joy Hofmeister.

“If our students can’t learn to read by third grade, it becomes a dramatically more difficult task for those young people to get back on grade level, to graduate on time, to be successful,” Walters said.

Data presented by Walters during a legislative hearing showed a dramatic increase in “at risk” students has been recorded in all grades from kindergarten to third grade in recent years in Oklahoma schools. In the 2018-2019 school year, around 40 percent of all students in grades one through three were at risk in reading, but by the start of the current 2022-2023 school year that figure included nearly half of students in all three grades. The highest share of at-risk students was in second grade with more than 52 percent of students falling into that category.

On state tests administered in spring 2022, just 29 percent of third-grade students were proficient or better on the English Language Arts test.

The results of the fourth-grade reading test administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2022 similarly showed that students in Oklahoma scored lower than their counterparts in all but three states and the District of Columbia. NAEP data indicated that Oklahoma’s fourth-grade students had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than did Oklahoma students in 2015.

“What we’re going to need is a significant plan for improving the reading scores for pre-K through third grade,” Walters said. “I think this is a major point of emphasis for our department, for schools.”

The decline in student literacy has occurred even as state school funding and teacher pay have both increased dramatically, starting in 2018 when lawmakers approved major tax increases promising that the tax hikes would benefit students.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, noted lawmakers have increased funding for the state’s Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) during that time to improve student literacy.

“While we were putting more money in RSA, my understanding is our literacy rates have declined over that same period,” Caldwell said.

Walters, a Republican whose term began this month, said he is working on a revised budget proposal for the Oklahoma State Department of Education that will be submitted to the State Board of Education for approval this week, and then presented to lawmakers.

Walters said his budget plan will differ from one devised by Hofmeister late last year in its focus on reading and approach to teacher pay.

Walters said his proposal will be based on increasing use of phonics-based reading instruction, noting that past literacy efforts in Oklahoma often opted for other methods of reading instruction that do not produce positive results.

“We’ve had a lot of other different strategies that have been brought forth as to how to learn reading, but this is only one that has truly shown with data, with the science of the brain, to help students understand the words that they’re trying to read,” Walters said. “We have to have those materials in the hands of every teacher in the state. Every teacher in the state should be trained in the science of reading.”

He said Oklahoma teachers have been poorly served by the reading-instruction materials and trainings provided to them in past years, because those materials were often not based on sound science.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had instruction, we’ve had resources, we’ve had trainings in the state that do not support the best practices of reading,” Walters said. “And that’s not those teachers’ fault. They go, they try to learn, they try to improve their craft.”

Walters’ call to redirect more money to the early elementary grades for reading instruction echoes a proposal recently unveiled by state Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs two key education committees in that chamber.

Pugh has proposed shifting more money to literacy efforts in early grades, citing Oklahoma’s poor national rankings on student reading.

Walters said his plan will also focus on attracting and retaining the best teachers in Oklahoma schools, including through performance pay that provides greater pay to the most effective teachers.

“I think that we’ve got to pay the best and brightest teachers,” Walters said. “I think it’s got to be performance-based when we talk about pay. I think we have some amazing teachers in the state of Oklahoma, and I think we’ve got to identify those folks, and we’ve got to make sure those folks are getting the money to stay in the classroom.”

He also reiterated his support for parental empowerment in education, including through robust school choice, as part of the solution to the state’s education challenges.

“Different environments are going to be better for different students,” Walters said. “Finding high-quality schools, finding high-quality individuals, and then giving parents the true choice to choose those schools is very important. Because as we continue to invest, as we continue to make these changes, as we continue to identify struggling learners, we need to have all options on the table for those learners.”

Walters noted other states and communities have significantly boosted student literacy rates through phonics-based instruction.

“What we will see is an investment that will pay dividends,” Walters said. “It will pay dividends in how our students are able to read and how they will be able to perform.”