Senator Pat Billie Miller gives a speech after being sworn in as the new state Senator for the 27th District representing parts of Stamford and Darien. Senator Pat Billie Miller is replacing the seat vacated by Senator Carlo Leone after winning the special election. Yehyun Kim /
Senator Pat Billie Miller was sworn in as the new state Senator for the 27th District representing parts of Stamford and Darien at the state Capitol earlier this spring. Yehyun Kim /

Legislation designed to improve grade-school reading curricula across the state — which was voted out of the Committee on Education in the spring but never came to a vote in the House of Representatives — became law as part of the massive budget implementation bill.

The legislation, initially dubbed the “Right to Read” act, calls for $12.8 million in spending to ensure that school districts where students are falling behind can hire reading coaches.

Baked into the Right to Read legislation, despite some pushback from educators and parents during public hearings, is the establishment of a Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success at the state Department of Education that will oversee the reading curriculum for Connecticut students in grades PreK-3.

“There is a proven method for literacy instruction, and we need to use it in all of our Connecticut classrooms. Our students are entitled to it,” Sen. Patricia Billie Miller wrote in a Stamford Advocate opinion piece.

Miller, who shepherded the legislation, lays blame on the state for the thousands of students reaching third grade each year still struggling to read.

“This is the result of Connecticut’s ‘hands-off’ approach to reading, which has failed to properly train all educators and to require proven, evidence-based practices and programs in every classroom,” Miller claimed.

While tutoring could help many struggling readers, perhaps an even larger component of the legislation is that every district by 2023 will be required to have in place reading curriculum that focuses on the so-called “science of reading.”

An advisory council within the new literacy center will ensure that school districts are using one of the five approved methods of teaching by July 1, 2023. Schools will have to notify the literacy center biannually about the program they chose. Districts will have the option to submit a waiver to implement a different model that did not get reviewed by the council, but it would have to be approved by the education commissioner and advisory council.

The bill received bipartisan support, but some educators and parents raised concerns about requiring districts to implement reading models approved by the literacy center as well as the establishment of the center itself.

“As an educator, I feel this bill will severely limit the options for students who need reading instruction. While the science of reading has options that support students, making it the required only option is detrimental,” East Haddam resident Nicole Hendry wrote in a testimony opposing the bill, adding that certain reading instruction may not work for every student and that having the state determine this “limits schools meeting students’ needs.”

“There are many important components to reading, and schools need to have options in supporting students,” Hendry wrote. “School districts should not have to apply for an exception to use other programs that support their students.”

There are two primary approaches to teaching children to read: phonetic instruction, in which the curriculum teaches children how to look at a word and sound it out, and an approach that teaches students how to identify words through cues.

The state doesn’t track which model districts use, despite research showing more children succeed with the phonetic approach.

This legislation will drastically expand a pilot program that has been sputtering along with success in the limited number of schools it has been funded to operate.

This Connecticut Literacy Model was created in the years leading up to the state’s school-funding trial, where one of the focuses was on high school students who were graduating without knowing how to read and write.

When then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called 2012 “the year of education reform,” the Black and Puerto Rican caucus’s solution for reading literacy was the Connecticut Literacy Model, piloted with the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education. It provides a multi-tiered approach to reading practices in districts with more students struggling to reach grade-level expectations.

“My hope is that [Right to Read] continues the trajectory of [the Connecticut Literacy Model],” said Michael Coyne, department head of educational psychology and a professor of special education at the Neag School.

“This feels like a good continuation and expansion of that,” he added.

Focusing on students in PreK-3 is important, Coyne explained, because those are the grades children are learning how to read and really start “mastering the skills or tools that make you … a successful reader.”

“From then on, kids are reading to learn,” he added. “So that means they have to be able to have this really strong set of reading tools available to be able to access learning and other content areas.”

The establishment of the center, Coyne explained, is to also coordinate existing efforts and state initiatives related to reading literacy. So instead of reading supports coming out of a district’s turnaround, academic or special education departments separately and independently, this new center at the state education department will align all those efforts together.

The bill will also require the state Department of Education, in coordination with center officials, to create a list of reading assessments used by districts starting in the 2022-23 school year to identify children who are reading below proficiency in grades K-3, as well as to provide guidance to districts regarding how to use administer the tests.

“We want to thank Sen. Miller for her steadfast support of literacy in the state of Connecticut, and we’re proud to work together on this piece of legislation,” Acting Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said. “We are pleased that the center will be located within the agency and are committed to continuing our work with key partners to ensure all children are proficient in reading by grade 3. Building confident readers will provide our students with the gateway to become productive, engaged lifelong learners.”

Durham-Middlefield Regional School District 13 Literacy Specialist Kristin Allen said she believes having a literacy model focused on “the science of reading” and implementing more structured approaches played a role in the progress they’ve seen this last year, despite the pandemic.

Allen began training teachers in her district to implement literacy practices in the classroom four years ago, after the district noticed an increasing number of kids were qualifying for special education services “mainly with a disability involved with some sort of reading deficit.”

“We had even COVID thrown into this whole mix of trying to make changes in our district, which put a halt on some of our plans, but our data this year is outstanding,” Allen said. “In our benchmark assessments, we have a very small amount of students in the red, those students that are significantly below basic. The pre-and post-data went from a lot of kids, a high percentage of students in the red, to now minimal number of students in the red.”

After spending 15 years as a special education teacher and going through 5-7 years of training to become a certified dyslexia practitioner, Allen now trains other teachers in Region 13 in oral language, phonics, reading comprehension, vocabulary, syntax, grammar, “all of the ins and outs of our language and how it relates to reading success.”

“I think the Right to Read just validates what we’re doing in my district,” Allen said. “I’m fortunate that our district is listening to me and taking the lead in establishing some of the approaches that the Right to Read is hoping that districts follow through on.”

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.