Without hesitation, Jill Lauren said that the most critical program that should be included under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is proper reading instruction beginning in kindergarten.

“We know that children learn to read by using either a whole language or phonics approach. Some kids seem to pick up reading, as if by magic, while others need every sound and syllable rule explicitly taught,” said Lauren, who holds a bachelor’s of science and master’s degree in learning disabilities from Northwestern University.

Known as an expert in reading and writing, Lauren has trained teachers around the country to utilize a variety of structured, multi-sensory approaches to the instruction of reading and written language.

“Teachers of pre-K to [third grade] need to know how to teach both methodologies of reading instruction,” said Lauren. “Every child entering third grade should be reading on grade level, meaning we have four years to properly teach kids how to read.”

Lauren continued: “Without the essential skill of reading on grade level, the rest of a child’s school years will be troubled, and statistics show that most youth offenders, as well as adult inmates, struggle with literacy. This educational failing is a national tragedy.”

Lauren’s concerns come as Education Week reported a push by Republicans in Congress to overturn accountability regulations for ESSA could have far-reaching consequences for how the law works in states, and the potential end of the much-contested rules is dividing the education community.

Groups supporting the move argue that it would free schools from unnecessary burdens, while opponents contend that overturning the rules could hurt vulnerable students and create turmoil in states and districts trying to finalize their transition to ESSA, the 2015 law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), comprised of 211 African American-owned media companies and newspapers, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support a three-year, multi-media public awareness campaign focusing on the unique opportunities and challenges of ESSA.

Bridging the academic achievement gap in education K-12 for African-American students and others from disadvantaged communities is of critical importance over the next several years, said Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the president and CEO of the NNPA.

“The ESSA law was established to help increase the effectiveness of public education in every state,” said Chavis. “Our task is to inform, inspire, and encourage parents, students, teachers, and administrators to fulfill the intent and objectives of ESSA with special focus on those students and communities that have been marginalized and underserved by the education system across the nation.”

Under ESSA, states will adhere to more flexible federal regulations that provide for improved elementary and secondary education in the nation’s public schools.

ESSA, which also reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), received bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 10, 2015. The regulations are administered by the U.S. Department of Education and ESSA goes into full effect at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

Last week, the House of Representatives approved a joint resolution that would overturn ESSA accountability rules issued by the Obama administration.

Those rules, which became final in November, are intended to detail for states the timeline for addressing underperforming schools, how schools must be rated, the ways English-language learners must be considered in state accountability plans, and other policy issues.

As some education advocates push for more intensive reading instruction in pre-K and kindergarten, others argue that attendance is the key to success.

“One of the things that should be included in any modification of ESSA is the fifth criteria for schools which is about school climate,” said Helen Levy-Myers, founder and CEO of Athena’s Workshop, Inc., a texting application for educators. “The most important metric in school climate is individual student attendance rates. Measuring when individual students attend or are absent is a key indicator of school environment and more valuable than a survey, an acceptable option, which can influence results in the way questions are phrased.”

School attendance is often dependent on other factors, like the friendliness of the staff, school leadership, safety of the school and neighborhood, health of the community, and the level of engagement between students and teachers, she said.

A white paper presented by Levy-Myers noted that the “cold, hard truth is that chronically absent children end up leading harder lives.”

Students that miss just two or three days each month in kindergarten and first grade never catch up. They become chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year.

About 83 percent of the chronically absent students in kindergarten and 1st grade are not reading at grade level at the end of third grade. Not being able to read well means that everything gets harder and that a student is four times more likely to drop out before graduation, Levy-Myers said.

Without a high school diploma, getting any job or advancing beyond the lowest, entry-level job is almost impossible, and that person is now eight times more likely to end up in jail, she said.

“Teachers and administrators know these facts, but parents often do not understand how small absences add up. Parents that do not visit the school or district website do not get the message about the importance of daily attendance,” Levy-Myers said. “They have not calculated that being absent two days a month, every month for nine months of school equals 18 days or 10 percent of the typical 180-day school year and that chronic absenteeism translates into a long list of negative outcomes.”

While many Republican lawmakers have moved to strike down the implementation of ESSA, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told state school officers around the country that despite a delay, several regulations will be reviewed and changed by March 21.

DeVos told the officers that state ESSA plans will still be accepted either in April or in September.

In a memo to state school heads DeVos wrote: “Due to the regulatory delay and review, and the potential repeal of recent regulations by Congress, the Department is currently reviewing the regulatory requirements of consolidated State plans, as reflected in the current template, to ensure that they require only descriptions, information, assurances, and other materials that are absolutely necessary for consideration of a consolidated State plan.”

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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