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Why Oregon has Failed to Teach Kids to Read after $250M Spent in 25 Years

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Editor’s note: This article comprises excerpts from an in-depth 3-part series published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle on the causes of the low reading proficiency of Oregon public school students. The 11,000-word series was researched over four months and included interviews with more than 80 teachers, parents, elected officials and college professors.

Part 1: Many Oregon kids still struggle to read because they are taught using ineffective methods

The Capital Chronicle determined that Oregon has spent more than $250 million in the past 25 years on reading. But that money has failed to help more than a generation of students. Over the last 25 years, nearly two in five fourth graders and one in five eighth graders have scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. That means they struggle to read and understand simple words. Today, few Oregon fourth and eighth graders are proficient readers, according to the report card.

To address this, Gov. Tina Kotek has signed into law the state’s single largest reading investment in two decades, the Early Literacy Success Initiative, a $140 million grant program to get “evidence-based literacy instruction” methods into classrooms in districts that apply for the funding. Kotek and the bill’s supporters have said it will finally get the “science of reading” into Oregon classrooms.

Since the 1960s, hundreds of studies have been conducted to find the most effective ways to teach kids to read. There is today a large body of cognitive and neuroscience research and evidence – often referred to as “the science of reading” – that has shown that the human brain does not learn to read or write naturally, but relies on explicit instruction in a specific set of skills. Everyone needs these skills to read, but each person learns them at different speeds.

Among the first and most fundamental skills kids must develop is learning to decode written words by mapping sounds to letters and letter combinations, known as phonics. It’s a skill around 60% of kids will struggle with unless they are given frequent and explicit instruction in the earliest grades. And among the most studied instructional methods for developing those phonics skills – proven to help all kids learn to read, especially those struggling most – was one developed by education psychologists and special education experts at the University of Oregon in Eugene 60 years ago.

Yet in many classrooms in Oregon and across the country, kids have been taught in ways that do not reflect all of that research. Instead, in many districts, curricula and instruction are based on theories popularized in the last few decades that rely less on robust phonics instruction, and instead favor teaching kids to read whole words on sight through memorization, and to use context clues and pictures to make guesses about words.

Proponents of these methods, which assume that kids will grow into reading if they’re exposed to good books, were pitted against proponents of robust phonics instruction in the mid-1990s in what’s known as “the reading wars,” which took over schools and state legislatures.

Oregon was not immune to the reading wars of the 1990s, which had become not just educational, but political. Phonics instruction was a favorite topic of former state Sen. Charles Starr, a conservative Republican from Hillsboro known for controversial proposals such as allowing schools to post signs of the Ten Commandments. But Starr was onto something with reading instruction. He tried at least three times between 1998 and 2003 to propose legislation that would mandate Oregon school districts provide explicit phonics instruction in the earliest grades and ensure schools had access to curricula that included phonics instruction. According to meeting minutes from a hearing on one of Starr’s bills, in May 1999, just 15 of the state’s 197 districts had K-5 literacy instruction that included direct phonics instruction.

Passage of Starr’s phonics proposals through the Republican-controlled House and Senate were largely divided along party lines, and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed two of Starr’s three proposals that made it to his desk. Mandating phonics nationwide had come to be seen as Republican dogma, an attempt to standardize and regulate teachers and teaching.

[In 2012, Oregon’s school chief Rob] Saxton began developing a proposal for the single largest state investment in state history in reading instruction: $180 million for the “Kindergarten Through Grade Three Reading Initiative” to get kids reading by third grade. It would have provided schools … with grants to pay for reading coaches, teacher training and curriculum rooted in the reading science.

“Governor Kitzhaber promised me that he would not sign the [2015] budget bill into law until this literacy initiative was funded,” Saxton told the Capital Chronicle.

But in February 2015, Kitzhaber abruptly resigned following ethics violations and the attempt died. Saxton resigned several months later to take a job leading the Northwest Regional Education Service District.

“Eight years have gone by,” Saxton said. “Fifty thousand students per class go through Oregon schools. That means 400,000 students have not had the kind of exposure to literacy instruction that they should have had in the intervening time.”

In those eight years that followed, the Legislature focused on initiatives that would balance the state school fund after decades of disinvestment. Then-Secretary of State Kate Brown became Oregon’s governor and was focused on raising the state’s graduation rate, which was among the lowest in the nation.

[Ed: Read the rest of Part 1 here: ]

Part 2: Oregon’s 15 educator preparation programs offer vastly different reading instruction methods to future teachers, and some teach flawed methods

The nearly 10,000 elementary school teachers in Oregon learned different methods for teaching reading depending on where they went to college. Today, Oregon’s 550,000 students have been left to contend with these instructional differences.

About 40% of fourth graders and one-third of eighth graders scored “below basic” on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “nation’s report card.” That means they struggle to read and understand simple words.

“At a systemic level, the single biggest problem is colleges of education,” said Doug Carnine, a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon.

At Southern Oregon University in Ashland, literacy and special education expert Sasha Borenstein was hired to teach an elective science of reading class for English and education majors earlier this year. Borenstein, who teaches the class remotely from her home off the coast of Maine, initially proposed the class 14 years ago when she moved from Los Angeles to Ashland. “I went to the university and I went to the special education department and I said: ‘This is what I do. Can I be of any help?’ And nobody took me up.”

The school is not making it a required course for all students in the teacher education program, but is considering creating a science of reading endorsement, a sort of additional credential that acknowledges expertise and that can be added to a teacher’s license.

In May, Gov. Kotek issued an executive order creating a commission that will spend the next year investigating and evaluating reading instruction at the state’s educator preparation programs and whether it aligns with decades of research on how best to teach reading. The goal is to update the teacher licensing process so all new teachers licensed in Oregon demonstrate they understand how best to teach all kids to read.

“If you want to teach in Oregon after this is all said and done, you have to meet this skill set,” Kotek told the Capital Chronicle.

The licensing exam that the commission issues, and that all future teachers must take, ultimately sets the standards for what they have to know.

Until September of 2021, the exam to get certified as a reading specialist in Oregon included testing teachers on a “balanced approach to literacy” and on methods – called “cueing” – that involve getting students to guess at words and use pictures. It essentially ensured that teachers were taught flawed reading instructional methods in college so they could pass the exam. The new version teachers have taken since September 2021 no longer tests them on cueing, or even mentions balanced literacy.

“It doesn’t seem like whatever you’re doing is helping students in Oregon when you only have 28% of all of your fourth-grade students in the state proficient in reading,” said Heather Peske of the National Council on Teacher Quality, referencing Oregon’s latest scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. When you only have 13% of your Hispanic students who are proficient in reading, she said, “that indicates to me that we need to prepare our teachers better.”

Eastern Oregon University professor Rhonda Fritz teaches educators how to teach teaching. She tells these current and future teachers that if they are struggling to teach reading, it is neither they nor their students that are the problem, but the methods they are using or the ways they’ve been taught that need improvement.

[Ed: Read the rest of Part 2 here: ]

Part 3: With districts, not the state, responsible for improving the teaching of reading, some students will be left behind

Curriculum in any subject is essentially a road map for the teacher, who is driving the car. It guides the day-to-day lessons and experiences a teacher will impart, down to slide decks, assignments and classroom activities. Oregon’s strong tradition of “local control” means teachers, administrators and locally elected school board members decide what curriculum to use, and students are stuck with their choices. Because the education department doesn’t track what curricula schools use, and doesn’t intervene if reading proficiency declines or doesn’t improve, it’s up to individual districts and their school boards to change.

Kotek made tackling more than a decade of low reading proficiency among Oregon students a campaign promise. The cornerstone of that is supporting a $140 million grant program called the Early Literacy Success Initiative to provide districts with money for new curricula and teacher training in reading instruction proven to work for all kids. If districts want the money, they have to present a plan to meet certain standards for what curricula will be used and the methods teachers will be trained in.

Saxton said Oregon’s continued reliance on local school boards and the state Legislature to do the work of an education department is part of the problem. He’s supportive of the Early Literacy Success Initiative, which resembles the “Kindergarten Through Grade Three Reading Initiative” he tried to pass in 2015 before it fell to the wayside when former Gov. Kitzhaber resigned. But, it also continues to leave the quality of children’s education in the hands of elected leaders, not experts, he said.

Carey Wright, Mississippi’s former state superintendent of education and an architect of the reading transformation there, said change would not have happened if the state’s education department wasn’t given the financial and regulatory power to set standards for reading instruction and enforce them.

Oregon won’t go that far.

“You have to have that balance between local determination and oversight from the state,” Kotek told the Capital Chronicle.

Saxton said he believes in the initiative and in Kotek’s passion for improving reading outcomes.

“When Tina runs for governor and starts that campaign two and a half years from now, she needs to be able to point to improvements in third grade reading due to this initiative,” he said. But he worries again about a decentralized approach to giving districts the money without strict oversight from the state education department and without new requirements to shape how reading is taught.

“I worry about whether or not they will create the requirements that will demand that people actually do precisely with the money what is supposed to happen, and that, that will translate itself into what happens in classrooms,” he said.

[Ed: Read the rest of Part 3 here: ]

Alex Baumhardt has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. Journalist and former Capital Chronicle intern Cole Sinanian contributed to this report.