Seeking better results, Colorado lawmakers want to tell schools how to teach reading

Concerned about the high number of Colorado students who don’t read at grade level, some lawmakers want to dictate how schools teach reading. A bipartisan bill introduced Monday in the Colorado Senate would also require that teachers get new certifications in reading instruction and move state dollars earmarked for struggling readers to programs that help schools improve their teaching methods.

The proposal is unusual in its level of legislative involvement in the details of classroom teaching. It lays out the components of effective reading instruction and would require schools to focus on those elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Schools would have to develop reading education plans and report back to the state on how they are teaching reading.

“We have to do something,” said state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and a sponsor of the legislation. “Sixty percent of our kids cannot read, at third grade, at grade level, and it makes a difference in the rest of their schooling and then their whole life. It’s a national problem. … But we know that there’s a science and there’s methodology and there’s evidence-based programs that work.”

Senate Bill 199 represents a major update to the READ Act, 2012 legislation that aims to get students reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Schools must test students in reading from kindergarten through third grade, identify students with “significant reading deficiencies,” and develop individualized plans to help those students.

While the READ Act describes evidence-based reading instruction, it only requires schools to provide it to students identified as being significantly below grade level. The READ Act gives schools additional money for struggling readers, which amounted to $33 million this year — an extra $835 per student for 39,600 identified students.

However, since Colorado began implementing the READ Act, the percentage of students with significant reading deficiencies has actually increased slightly. While some of that increase is attributed to better identification of struggling readers, lawmakers and state education officials are frustrated that the additional spending has not gotten more students on track.

That’s why lawmakers landed on this new approach. There are few parallels in other content areas. Colorado follows the principle of local control, with the state setting academic standards and school districts choosing curriculum and textbooks.

“I am very much for local control, but when you keep putting money into something with no results, well, you’re getting to the definition of insanity,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and a sponsor of the bill. Wilson is also a former school district superintendent.

The legislation tackles this tension head on, saying that the legislature’s obligation to “provide for the establishment of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” gives it the authority to tell school districts their reading instruction must be based on research and evidence. The declaration notes the Colorado Supreme Court has found that neither local control nor state authority is absolute and each must be balanced against other interests.

Nonetheless, local districts, particularly those in rural areas that already struggle to attract qualified teachers and specialists, are likely to raise concerns. Many educators already chafe under the testing and reporting requirements of the READ Act, and the Senate bill goes a step further — asking for more information about how dollars are spent and what teachers are doing in the classroom.

Colorado currently spends about $42.5 million a year on the READ Act, and Rankin said he expects this new legislation to spend the same amount of money but allocate it differently.

The proposal comes amid widespread concern about low reading levels in Colorado and around the nation. Some states, like Michigan, are planning to hold back students who can’t read at grade level by third grade, and in Memphis, Tennessee, officials have proposed holding back second-graders who don’t read at grade level. This approach is controversial, given the stigma of repeating a grade and ongoing questions about whether it actually helps students.

In Colorado, state regulators are already scrutinizing how teachers learn to teach reading. A recent report called out the University of Northern Colorado for instruction that does not align to state standards; other teacher prep programs will face review soon.

The bill would create a new certification process within the Colorado Department of Education for paraprofessionals, teachers, and reading coaches. The state education department already lays out standards for reading instruction as part of elementary education, special education, and reading specialist licenses, but there’s no specific certification related to reading instruction. The department does not currently certify paraprofessionals, or classroom aides.

These training classes would have to be provided at no cost to districts or teachers, and each district would have to lay out a schedule for how it plans to have all its teachers certified. Rankin said that this certification process would ensure that rural districts have access to expertise that can be hard to come by in remote parts of the state.

Because the bill has just been introduced, legislative analysts have not yet produced estimates of how much those additional programs would cost.

Earlier this month, lawmakers on the influential Joint Budget Committee, of which Rankin is a member, withheld the $33 million for individual student support to save room in the budget for this bill, which also proposes a significant change in how READ Act money is distributed.

The bill takes three-quarters of READ Act money and puts it toward early literacy grants that help entire schools improve their reading instruction. That grant program currently gets just $5.4 million, but participating schools have shown better results in some cases than schools doing more individualized interventions. School districts would have to provide a much more detailed accounting of how they spend the remaining per-pupil dollars and post detailed information online about the percentage of students reading below grade level, those with significant reading deficiencies, and how their district compares to state averages.

The bill also sets aside $500,000 for a public information campaign highlighting schools that are doing a good job getting more students to read at grade level.

Chalkbeat contributor Sandra Fish provided reporting for this article.