White woman wearing a black dress to the left standing at a podium speaking to her right is a white man sitting down wearing suit
Georgia Council on Literacy Chair Scott Johnson (right) and Georgia Literacy Coach Miranda Williams present an update on Georgia’s board of education. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

If you can read this, count your blessings.

One in six Georgia adults have low literacy skills, according to a 2017 Deloitte report

Researchers further found that these adults cost Georgia about $1.26 billion per year, with most of that, $818 million, in paying for people in prison. One survey ranked Georgia as No. 42 in the nation with a literacy rate of 76.4%.

And the results of the spring 2023 Georgia Milestones tests suggest that some children are having difficulty reading as well. More than a third of Georgia third-graders — 34.1% — are reading below grade level.

The state department of education points to pandemic learning loss as exacerbating Georgia’s low literacy rates. According to a department presentation, 42% of third-graders were rated proficient readers or above in their 2019 Milestones test. That number dropped to 36% in 2021, but rose to 39% this year, still below the pre-pandemic level.

In an effort to boost those numbers, the state Legislature passed a pair of literacy bills. House Bill 538, the “Georgia Early Literacy Act,” requires schools to screen K-3 students for reading deficiencies and issues like dyslexia. Senate Bill 211 established the 30-member Georgia Council on Literacy, which held its first meeting in July. Council Chair Scott Johnson offered an update on the council’s early progress at the state board of education’s retreat in Young Harris, Georgia Tuesday morning. Johnson said the pieces are starting to move, but results will take time.

“This isn’t a one-and-done thing,” he said. “This is something that the Legislature addressed in the last session earlier this year, it is going to continue to be something that’s a priority in the next session in 2024, and it’s going to be in the future.”

Johnson said one of the council’s first tasks has been to examine other states that have seen success in boosting literacy, including Mississippi, once a public education laughingstock, where more than a decade of effort has begun yielding major improvements in recent years.

Johnson said former Mississippi State Schools Superintendent Carey Wright is set to attend the council’s Oct. 17 meeting to share pointers.

“That just makes sense, right?” he said. “I’ve done it all my life in the business community, look at what my competitors were doing, or look at what my other partners were doing, and steal a good idea.”

In an August interview with McKinsey, Wright outlined steps she took, including setting goals and hiring professional development coaches.

“I can literally look you in the face and say I had absolutely no social life for nine years,” Wright said. “I did nothing but work, but I was determined, and I loved every minute of it. You’ve got to, in your heart of hearts, believe that there’s nothing children can’t do with the right amount of access and opportunity and support. And you’ve got to convey that to the children and to their teachers and school leaders. That, in the end, is the North Star.”

The University System of Georgia is set to submit plans of action for teacher training later this month, said Miranda Williams, who serves as Georgia literacy coach with the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

“Then next year, they’ll be implemented, and then the first audit is next October,” she said. “We really want these teachers trained before they get to the K-12 system. And then at the K-12 system level, they’re doing the coaching and the scaffolding with the teacher, rather than the actual training, and the chancellor (Sonny Perdue) is on board. He wants his teachers in schools of education being able to teach reading.”

Beth Haynes, legislative chair for advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Georgia, said the new screeners and teacher training could make a huge difference for kids with the reading disability. About one in five people experience dyslexia to some degree, but early detection combined with good teaching can set them up for reading success.

“I can’t emphasize it enough,” Haynes said. “The earlier that a child is recognized as struggling and the earlier that they can get help, it just absolutely changes the trajectory of their educational journey. It takes so much longer and so much more investment to remediate a kid after third or fourth grade.”

HB 538 calls for teachers to be instructed in structural literacy, a way of teaching reading that breaks down language into fundamental elements. It’s recommended by groups including the International Dyslexia Association.

Haynes said preliminary work suggests Georgia students could benefit from the paradigm shift, dyslexic or otherwise.

“Some of the school districts who were in the pilot and have started implementing the science of reading and structured literacy for their kids a few years ago, they’re having remarkable outcomes,” she said. “These teachers feel like they want however much of their career that they did prior to getting that training and learning how to teach kids to read effectively, they all say they want that time back.”

Williams said future recommendations could include more hearing and vision screenings for Georgia kids in an attempt to prevent students from falling behind because they cannot hear their teacher or see their lessons.

“Other states do a lot more screenings than we do, because our requirement is just right when they enter school for the first time,” she said.

Other ideas under consideration include seeking to partner with hospitals to give new parents access to information about steps to help babies and toddlers acquire language and working with community groups, churches and businesses to spread the word to parents about literacy resources.

Parents have a major role to play, said board member Martha Zoller, but some are better able to help their kids than others.

“What I see as one of our biggest challenges in implementing this is that we have a growing difference between very well off people and their kids in school and people that are not,” she said.”

“The biggest challenge is getting to that group of kids that are in those families,” the conservative radio talk show host added. “Whether they’re English language learners, which in many of my counties is over 30% of the students that we’re dealing with, or they’re parents that didn’t have a good experience in school, so they don’t know how to interact with the school. Their first thought is not ‘how can I get help to get my kids to read,’ their first thought is ‘I’ve got to get through the day.’”

The state will have to consider generational illiteracy and other difficult factors, said Stan DeJarnett, the education board’s vice chair and a member of the Council on Literacy, but DeJarnett expressed optimism in the state’s ability to get the job done.

“I’m going to remind everybody there are no quick fixes on this,” he said. “We have to be patient, but we also have to be persistent. Yeah, it took over a decade for Mississippi to get the results they’re seeing. I don’t think it’ll take that long in Georgia. We have some infrastructure here in place and some leadership here in place, some commitment here in place that maybe they didn’t have.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.

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