Mat-Su Career and Technical High School

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with educators in the construction hallway at Mat-Su Career and Technical High.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing major new education initiative designed to improve reading skills for Alaska children. The “Alaska Reads Act” will focus on interventions for struggling readers and will offer targeted school-improvements for the state’s lowest performing schools.

“For the second year in a row, Alaska’s students ranked last out of all 50 states in grade four reading performance. In 2019, only 37 percent of Alaska’s grade three students were proficient in reading on the statewide summative assessment, Alaska is facing a reading crisis and we must insist on better educational outcomes for our children.” the governor said in in announcing the plan a Jan. 15 press conference at Turnagain Elementary School in Anchorage.

“Today (Jan. 15) marks a concerted effort, with bipartisan support, to provide our children with the best possible education by offering every opportunity to succeed in reading – a fundamental building block in every child’s education,” Dunleavy said.

“As a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, I have seen the many ways in which our schools shape our children’s lives, as well as the challenges our educators face. Alaska has bright spots and high performing schools, but there are also areas that need improvement—specifically reading. Our delivery of education services must be improved to ensure bright futures for all of Alaska’s children, and reading is the cornerstone.”

The governor worked with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Begich, (D-Anchorage) in developing the proposal. Begich has developed a similar reading plan that he introduced as a bill last year. “The Governor and I have been working together to craft legislation that will provide our youngest Alaskans with an opportunity to succeed,” Begich said.

“We are still working on some provisions of the bill, but I believe that together we can develop a comprehensive early learning and reading policy that supports kids and moves Alaska forward. Strong, quality, voluntary, universal pre-K with support through effective reading instruction in later grades is critical for Alaska’s youth.”

Alaska Education Commissioner Dr. Michael Johnson said, “Ensuring students read proficiently by the end of third grade was identified as a top priority by the State Board of Education and Alaskan stakeholders in the Alaska’s Education Challenge. The Alaska Reads Acts translates that priority into policy. I look forward to working with all Alaskans, including our dedicated educators, to effectively implement the act.”

Dunleavy pointed to results from the 2017 and 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, of NEAP, which ranked Alaska as the lowest performing state in grade four reading, with only 25 percent of students performing at or above the proficient level in 2019. Alaska also scored below the national average in grade four reading on the NAEP evaluation for every year the test was administered since 2003. The Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS), Alaska’s summative assessment also showed that over 60 percent of grade three students scored below or far below proficient in English language arts between 2017 and 2019.

A person’s ability to read is a critical predictor of educational and lifelong success. Before third grade, students are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade and beyond, a student must be prepared to read to learn across all subject areas. A strong reading program, beginning in kindergarten and continuing into the third grade and beyond, gives students the best possible chance to maximize their education.

The Alaska Reads Act is a bill that would create a statewide comprehensive “K-3” (Kindergarten to third grade) reading policy designed to improve reading. The policy expands high-quality pre-k opportunities for younger four and five-year-olds; provides direct support and intervention services for low-performing schools; ensures early identification of struggling readers, and requires reading intervention services for K-3 students who need more help to become successful.

The governor’s proposal includes several principles:

Statewide teacher training on reading instruction and job-embedded training through department-employed reading specialists

Focusing existing state and federal funds

Early literacy screening tool

Timely parent notification

Individual reading plans

Monitored student progress

Home reading strategies and/or programs

Interventions

Appropriate grade-level progression for students severely below grade level

Multiple pathways to demonstrate reading proficiency

Good cause exemptions

According to a briefing paper, the bill proposes early education program grants, early screening, parent involvement, teacher training, direct support for low-performing schools, and intensive reading intervention.

Its fundamental principles include statewide teacher training on reading instruction alongside department-employed reading specialists. This would ensure teachers have the knowledge and skill to teach reading to all students, including students with severe reading difficulties such as dyslexia. The bill would provide new funding through grants. Early literacy screening would be administered three times each school year in grades K-3 to identify students with potential reading difficulties. There would be parent notification for any student identified with a reading difficulty.

Individual reading plans would be developed with the parent, with recommendations for evidence-based reading interventions aimed at removing the deficit. Home reading strategies and programs would be provided to parents to support children at home. Student progress is would be monitored more frequently for students identified as having reading difficulties.

There would be multiple pathways provided for third grade students to demonstrate reading skills required for progress to fourth grade, so that one test on one day is not the determining factor. “Good cause” exemptions would be allowed for appropriate grade progression that recognize the special needs of some students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who have previously experienced delayed grade-level progression.

Two Republican state senators voiced strong support for the initiative. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anch, said, “Childhood literacy is not a partisan issue. It’s critical to the strength of our economy, the health of our communities and the endurance of our democracy. I believe this effort – spearheaded by Senator Begich and Governor Dunleavy – will make tremendous strides toward achieving universal literacy, a goal we all share as Alaskans.”

Mat-Su Sen. Shelley Hughes said, also Republican, said, “Successful passage of this reading policy will mean in 15 to 20 years we will have fewer adults in Alaska incarcerated, fewer on public assistance, fewer on Medicaid. Children who wouldn’t otherwise break out of poverty, will now have a whole new world of opportunities opened to them when they become proficient readers and excel in their schoolwork.

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