Historic Minnesota law requires schools to adopt a new reading curriculum to close reading gap

Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia
Minnesota legislators recently passed a historic law that requires schools to adopt a new reading curriculum — all with the goal of closing Minnesota’s vast reading gap.
Emily Hanford | APM Reports 2017

If you have young kids in your life, you may have noticed that they’re learning to read in ways that are different than the way your learn.

That’s because Minnesota legislators recently passed a historic law that requires schools to adopt a new reading curriculum — all with the goal of closing Minnesota’s vast reading gap.

In Rochester’s public schools, some of these tools are already in use. MPR News reporter Catharine Richert reported the story, and discussed it with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer and Emily Hanford of APM Reports, where she hosted and led production of the podcast Sold a Story.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: If you have young kids in your life, you may have noticed that they're learning to read in ways that are different than the way you learned. That's because Minnesota lawmakers recently passed a historic law that requires schools to adopt a new reading curriculum, all with the goal of closing Minnesota's vast reading gap. In Rochester's public schools, some of these tools are already in use. Catharine Richert has more.

CATHARINE RICHERT: First-grade teacher Jillian Albee settles into a chair in front of her students at Elton Hills elementary and readies a stack of flashcards in her lap.

JILLIAN ALBEE: I say the whole word. You say the whole word. Say the first sound and the rest of the word. Say sun.

CHILDREN: Sun.

EVERYONE: Sss-un.

JILLIAN ALBEE: Say jam.

CHILDREN: Jam. J-am.

CATHARINE RICHERT: This lesson is a peek into the future of how Minnesota kids will learn to read. Earlier this year, the legislature passed the READ Act, a new law that requires schools around Minnesota to teach reading in new ways. The Act gives $70 million to schools to pay for training and curriculum from a menu of approved options. In a state that has traditionally left curriculum choices to individual districts, the law is unprecedented.

JILLIAN ALBEE: Give yourself thumbs up. That's awesome.

CATHARINE RICHERT: What all be students are doing is called phonemic awareness. It's just one strategy that teachers in Rochester are using to help kids decode words. It replaces an intense focus on memorizing sight words and using pictures as clues to the story, a problematic approach researchers say has failed to teach some kids to read. But even before the READ Act was passed, Rochester was already investing in training and curriculum that's based in phonics because a growing body of research shows the method is more effective. Albee says it's been a game changer for her. Students, because they're not just learning how to sound out words, they're also learning how letters and sounds behave.

JILLIAN ALBEE: If the word is chin and the kid looks at it and they, k, hu, eh, uhn. And then they're saying kahin, and they have no idea, we're teaching them that C-H goes together. It says ch. And so that's what decoding is, is knowing all the different sounds that the letters can make.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Natalie Stoffel is a reading coach at Elton Hills. She says the new approach will help kids get more out of reading in later grades.

NATALIE STOFFEL: Because once they get to the older books, where there's not pictures in there, that's where we were seeing the discrepancy of not being able to read it because they couldn't blend those words together.

KENT PEKEL: I think it is one of the best things that Minnesota has done in education in decades.

CATHARINE RICHERT: That's Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel. When he arrived in the district about two years ago, teachers had already started training to teach this way.

KENT PEKEL: But it was mostly theoretical. It was bringing teachers in to talk about the need to bring back phonics and things like that. But it really wasn't getting into the how to.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Under his tenure, Pekel has made it a priority to bring that curriculum to classes. The READ Act pushes the effort forward faster.

KENT PEKEL: We're all moving in this direction because the science is conclusive.

CATHARINE RICHERT: But Pekel says there are a lot of questions about how the law will be implemented, like whether there will be money for future trainings and how districts will make time for teachers to do it. It's something his wife, Katie Pekel, is thinking about, too. She directs educational leadership programs at the University of Minnesota and advised state legislators on the READ Act.

KATIE PEKEL: $70 million is going to go a long way, and we are going to see some pretty significant changes in the State of Minnesota.

CATHARINE RICHERT: But she worries that smaller districts that rely on smaller tax bases to fund schools could struggle to keep up with the ongoing costs of transitioning to a new curriculum. Staff morale is another concern. She says principals need to do what they can to make sure teachers don't feel defeated about being required to change how they teach reading.

KATIE PEKEL: That's a heavy lift as a principal, when you're trying to lead a building full of educators that now feel bad about their craft and that they haven't been serving kids well.

CATHARINE RICHERT: The reality she says is that teachers have done their best with the flawed reading curriculum they inherited. Now there are better alternatives, and she hopes that's the message everyone will embrace. Catharine Richert, NPR News, Rochester.

CATHY WURZER: We're joined right now by Catharine Richert, who's going to tell us how these changes are playing out in her own household. And we're joined by our AP Reports colleague Emily Hanford. Emily's podcast, Sold a Story, played a big role in the state's move to change reading standards. And it recently came in at number three on Time Magazine's list of the top 10 podcasts of 2023.

Wow, it's also won countless awards, including a Murrow Award, kind of like the Oscar of journalism. Joining us right now, Catharine Richert, Emily Hanford. How are you both doing?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Good.

EMILY HANFORD: Good. This is Emily.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. And Catharine, I'm going to start with you because you are a parent of two kids. Your kids are in Rochester Public Schools. You have, obviously, firsthand experience with what a lot of Minnesota parents will soon see. So tell us about that.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, Cathy, I'm a parent of three kids actually, all of whom are in the same elementary school this year. And I can tell you that what I'm seeing between how my oldest, who is now in fifth grade, learned to read and my youngest is learning is really different. So if we can dial back the clock about five or six years, my now fifth grader was in kindergarten.

And he was really struggling to read. He would come home. And we'd sit down and try to do it together. And we would open these really simple books up, and he would be really fixated on sight words, so words that he had to memorize. And also he would be getting frustrated because he would say, mom, I'm looking at the picture, but I didn't get the word right.

So he was really using the visuals in these books as sort of a hint, a clue of what the story was about. He is a great reader now, just to be clear, and we're really proud of him. But it took him longer.

Now, my middle child, who is now in second grade, started kindergarten when she was in-- this would have been '21, '22. And she was in school, even though it was in the pandemic, but we had this stretch of distance learning. And I very vividly remember her being at home, and doing her lessons online, and doing this weird, like hand clapping, patting thing, where she was sounding out words at the same time, like kuh-at for cat, or puh-at for pat.

And I remember after watching her do this lesson, I said, Amelia, what are you doing? She's like, oh, mom, this is phonemic awareness. And I was like, what is that? I never heard of this before. It was totally new to me.

And she is a strong reader and has been from day 1. And now my youngest, my kindergartner, I swear, just in the last week literally, has been picking up these books that we have lying around the house that used to belong to my fifth grader when he was learning how to read, really simple stuff. And he is sounding out words, and blending sounds together, and reading them. And it's just sort of amazing how much faster my younger children have seemed to pick up on this stuff compared to my oldest, who was learning from a very different curriculum just a few years ago.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, interesting. Emily, what do you think of this?

EMILY HANFORD: Well, it's great to hear. There really are a lot of changes that are being made all over the country, and I think some of it is the reporting that I've done. But it's also really activism by parents over many years, who have been pointing out this very problem, that many kids in school are really not being taught to read in ways that line up with what we know about what people need to learn to become good readers. And in some cases, the kids, it doesn't work out.

So Catharine is very lucky because her son was able to become a good reader anyway. And I'm sure a lot of that had to do with things that you were doing at home. But there are many kids who don't get over that. They don't get good reading instruction at an early age, and they really never become good readers. And that's what I've been focusing on for years in my reporting.

CATHY WURZER: Say, for folks who've not listened to the podcast-- I don't know who they are, really, because it's really popular. But how did the old standards take hold in American schools?

EMILY HANFORD: Well, if you have listened to the podcast, you'll know that it's six episodes, now eight. We did two more episodes last spring. It's about five hours of listening, so there's, obviously, a long answer to that question because that's essentially the question that the podcast takes on. How did this happen?

But I think the primary culprit here is that many teachers and other educators haven't known how kids learn to read. How does that work? How do we read? How do our brains do it?

And the truth is that, for a long time, no one knew the answer to that question. But over the past 50 years or so, there's been a tremendous amount of really interesting research that has dug deep into these questions about how we read, and why some people struggle, and what kids need to be taught to become good readers.

And a lot of teachers just didn't know that. They didn't have that information. And they didn't realize that the way that they were teaching kids to read, in many cases, didn't align with-- actually directly conflicted with a lot of that research. So I think that's been the primary problem. And so I think, ultimately, this is really a knowledge thing.

And I think that legislation in places like Minnesota, one of the key parts of effective legislation is making sure that teachers get good training, they understand how kids learn to read, they understand what about the old ways that they were teaching are not effective, may have actually been harming kids, and they are given the time, and the materials, and the resources to really be able to learn this new stuff. It's not easy.

Teachers don't have easy jobs. This is hard stuff. It's going to take a while to get it right. But I think there are many teachers who are learning things now that they never knew. And it's a huge relief for them to learn those things.

Of course, Catharine, this is a big deal for the Minnesota legislature to weigh in on something like this.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yeah. From what I understand, it is rather unprecedented for state lawmakers to mandate a curriculum. And to be clear, they're not saying you have to teach this one curriculum. But the READ Act really does three things that gets all schools in Minnesota on the same page when it comes to how they're teaching reading. It provides $70 million that can be used for teacher training and curriculum, and it provides a menu.

So you don't have to buy just this one thing or this one type of training. You have some options. But you have to pick what's right for you, and that money can be used to pay for that.

The other thing that this bill does in a state where it really was left up to the districts to figure this all out-- so there wasn't a lot of continuity, I guess-- is that it requires some frequent testing of the kids. And so again, I've seen this with my younger kids. We're getting these test scores more frequently around reading that, when I visited the school that I featured in the story we just listened to, the teachers, and the reading specialists, and the principal said there this testing is great because it really helps us hone in on where kids are in that moment. And it helps them more efficiently use resources.

So instead of having a bunch of kids see a reading specialist, they can figure out, OK, these two kids like really need some intensive help. Everyone else is on the same page and moving forward ahead. And that more real time information is just allowing them to do their job more efficiently. Now, I should say that the reason I focused on Rochester in doing this story is that, even before this bill was passed, they were already doing some of these things. They started about two years ago. There are other districts in Minnesota that are four years ahead of everyone else. And then there are some that are really just starting this because of this, this new piece of legislation.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Cat, for parents who are listening right now and they're maybe a little confused by this, what, when can they expect to see or hear when their kids bring home schoolwork under the new standards? Or if they want to help their kids practice reading, what should they be doing?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, I think that it really depends on where you live. I live in a district where we've already started to see this stuff come home. And you're going to see a lot more focus on the blending of sounds and the phonics aspect of learning, so sounding things out, and less of an emphasis on sight words. Again, that's something I've seen at home. I remember my fifth grader having to memorize all these words, and that was really hard for him.

Sight words are still important. They're still there. But we're just seeing less of an emphasis on that. And I think, frankly, what I'm hearing from all of the teachers that I talk to for this story is the best thing you can do with your kids is just to sit down with them, and pick up a book, and help them try to read it. Practice this stuff at home. And it's pretty simple actually if you think about it.

CATHY WURZER: Emily. The podcast is being translated into Spanish, which is terrific, so another resource for parents.

EMILY HANFORD: Absolutely. Yeah, that should be ready early in the new year. It's been a fascinating project to work on translating it. But we really want this information to get out to as many parents as possible because, again, I really think the parents are the key here. It's when the parents have really raised questions about this, and schools are really listening to that.

And so I think as many parents as possible need to know about this and need to know some of the things that Catharine was talking about, what to look for in your own child, how to know whether or not they're behind. A lot of parents don't know that their kids are behind in reading. It's really important if you're a parent and you think there's a problem, you have a gut-level feeling that something is wrong, trust your gut. Follow up on that. Go and talk to the school. It's really important to get kids help early.

CATHY WURZER: Right. Exactly. Emily, have you noted your reporting pushing other states to change reading standards?

EMILY HANFORD: Yeah. There has been quite a bit of action since Sold a Story came out. And again, it's not all because of Sold a Story. There really was a lot of legislation being passed. And as Catharine noted, there are many schools around the country that have been doing this for two, four, five years now. But since the podcast, we know that at least 15 states have passed some kind of law to change the way reading is taught, and we know that there are many more that are working on this.

So I think this is a big thing. And I think it's good because I think there's a lot that different schools, and school districts, and states can learn from each other about how to make change effectively.

CATHY WURZER: Emily, and Catharine, job well done. Thank you so much.

EMILY HANFORD: Thank you.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Catherine Richert is a reporter for NPR News. Emily Hanford is one of our colleagues at APM Reports, where she hosted and led production of the award-winning podcast Sold a Story.

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