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Evidence-Based Instruction Shines in Meeting on Early Learning

Legislators and state education board members also discussed collaboration across agencies and gaining the support of policy leaders, teachers and families.

By Lauren Gendill  |  February 21, 2024

More than ever, states across the nation look to evidence-based instruction to boost reading and math skills for their students.

“We are seeing some states take on and build toward comprehensive packages. Other states are looking at ways to close gaps in their current policy packages,” says Casey Sullivan Taylor, policy director for early literacy at the education policy research organization ExcelinEd. “The other trend is on high-quality instructional materials, where states have advanced what materials should look like or how they should align to the science of reading.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Boards of Education brought together legislators and board members last fall to discuss early education policy, with a focus on successful collaboration between legislatures and boards of education on statewide early learning.

During the two-day event, legislators and board members learned about the science behind early literacy and math education from researchers, reviewed policy examples from the states, and observed innovative early learning by visiting a local elementary school. Meeting attendees also participated in panel conversations to share examples of successful collaboration in statewide early education reform from their own states.

Since 2013, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have passed policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. During the meeting, legislators, board members, and department of education representatives from Colorado, Delaware and Georgia reflected on their state’s plans, processes, and challenges implementing evidence-based reading instruction policy. The policies discussed included science of reading legislation in those states requiring that literacy instruction practices and materials be aligned with research on reading instruction. A common theme among the presenters was the importance of collaboration across all of state government and garnering the support of state policy leaders, teachers and families.

Early Literacy

Taylor cites Mississippi as an example of a state that significantly improved literacy instruction over the past decade. Mississippi’s Literacy Based Promotion Act of 2013 requires school districts to provide intensive and research-based instructional services, progress monitoring measures, and supports for retained students who score below a threshold on the state reading exam. The policy was amended in 2016 to include new reading instruction and intervention documentation requirements and increased score expectations for third graders. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress data, Mississippi was one of two states including Hawaii to achieve an increase in fourth-grade reading scores between 2013 and 2022, and the state’s average reading score was one point above the national average in 2022.

Early Math

Nationally, math proficiency scores fared worse than literacy scores during the pandemic, and legislators and board members alike are looking for solutions. Deborah Stipek, an education professor at Stanford University, says developmentally appropriate early math education can be reflected in state policy.

“When I did research on math in preschool years ago, we would go day after day and not see any math. Now, there is more attention being given to math—much, much less than literacy—but more than before,” Stipek says.

Recent research shows that children develop early math skills through structured learning, inclusive instruction and teacher-led activities, and play.

Christopher Danielson, founder of Math On-A-Stick, says math education can be more tactile and play-based while engaging the full family. Math On-A-Stick, a large-scale family play space hosted annually at the Minnesota State Fair, provides several activities that are approachable to kids of all ages and incorporates counting, patterns, shapes, building and creativity. Danielson, who brought learning tools for legislators and board members to see, says educational products introduce new vocabulary and allow early learners to “express rich mathematical ideas.”

Looking Ahead: Reflections on Collaboration and Implementation

Stipek encourages legislators and board members to discuss the policy levers associated with the following instructional principles: program licensing standards, student learning standards, assessments, curriculum, teacher capacity and school resources.

“If we have a model where we set an expectation but do not help build the knowledge to deliver on those expectations, then it can be self-defeating,” Taylor says. “When all stakeholders—legislators, board members, the state superintendent, and the department of education—have good communication pathways, it sets a tone and creates a buy-in that is more likely to advance change than if one does it without the other.”

NCSL provides links to websites and reports from other organizations for informational purposes only; it does not necessarily support or endorse the material.

Lauren Gendill is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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