Sen. Ann Millner: Building an Education Foundation for Utah Students
One of the reasons I love being a professor is that I get a front row seat to students’ successes in and out of the classroom. I’ve watched students become contributing members of society and leaders in our community. I get to admire and observe how their creativity and contributions make Utah a better place to live.
However, not all students are lucky enough to pursue such opportunities because they lack foundational skills developed early on in their education. One of those foundational skills is reading. Reading is essential to ensuring every child has the opportunity to succeed. It promotes self-confidence, builds independence and boosts critical and creative thinking skills.
As we head into a new school year, the Utah Legislature has taken steps to help students develop better reading abilities.
Right now, 50% of students in Utah are not at grade-level reading by the third grade. Consequently, students who are unable to read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. Not to mention, third grade literacy levels are a strong indicator of a student’s academic success or failure throughout the student’s education experience.
Since 2013, our state has increased overall reading proficiency gains by only 3%. While efforts have been made to address this problem, the Legislature chose to prioritize third grade reading during the 2022 general session. Our state’s goal is to ensure every student has the opportunity, tools and resources to learn to read proficiently early on, as it is the foundation for success in all subjects.
SB127, titled Early Literacy Outcomes Improvement, enhances and aligns strategies to improve early literacy results in kindergarten through third grade students. This legislation encompasses four specific initiatives:
- Align existing literacy programs toward a common goal.
- Equip teachers and administrators with evidence-based teaching methods.
- Place literacy coaches in the lowest performing schools.
- Provide resources to support parent, family and community efforts.
Our state is working toward a solution to build educators’ knowledge and skills using methods that have had great success in other states. From 2017 to 2019, every state except for one dropped in third grade literacy scores. Mississippi actually improved scores. Their model has similar initiatives to those in SB127, and it resulted in tremendous and tangible improvement in schools throughout the state.
Likewise, Utah is also working to support educators with resources and training. The Legislature recognizes the key role our teachers play in this initiative. The last few years have been trying for our educators. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic not only highlighted the urgency of literacy programs in classrooms but has also made teaching increasingly difficult.
Educators have worked tirelessly to provide a safe learning environment for our students to thrive. To better help in this effort, the state is providing funding and resources for teachers to use evidence-based methods to increase reading abilities.
In addition, the state will also better utilize community resources by strengthening existing and forming new cross-sector partnerships and collaboration to support the holistic needs of students. Volunteers will be involved in schools to support student reading proficiency with established strategies. Outside of the classroom, families and caregivers will be given the tools to support literacy learning, and out-of-school programs will be aligned with school literacy goals.
Utah students are the next generation of successful business owners, employees and leaders for our state. We must provide a pathway for their success. I am confident that with an increased focus on improving third grade literacy scores, we are better preparing our students to take on challenges and pursue greater education opportunities.