Colorado literacy bill mandating more teacher training advances

A Colorado bill that would require many early elementary teachers to undergo new training in reading instruction passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, but not before lawmakers and parent activists expressed concern that the proposal represents a meager effort against a massive problem: that roughly 60 percent of Colorado third-graders do not read at grade level.

“What we really want to do is help our kids,” said state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “This can literally keep kids out of jail. The average prisoner only reads at a fourth grade level.”

Senate Bill 199 makes changes 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.

Six years after the implementation of this law, the number of children with significant reading deficiencies has actually increased slightly, and the number of children not reading at grade level has barely budged. Those numbers have raised questions about how districts are using roughly $42.5 million in dedicated state funds each year and whether districts’ reading curriculum reflects scientific understanding of how children learn to read.

The original version of the bill introduced last month went much further in dictating how schools approach reading, going so far as to say how many minutes a day students should receive literacy instruction. It also would have created a new literacy certification process within the Colorado Department of Education for reading coaches and teachers, as well as for the classroom aides who often provide one-on-one and small group reading instruction. There is currently no licensing process for paraprofessionals.

Significantly, it would have shifted most READ Act money away from per-pupil allocations and into schoolwide literacy grants, with major financial implications for districts. Those per-pupil dollars represented an extra $835 per student this year, but critics have said there is little accountability for how that money is spent. Schoolwide literacy grants, meanwhile, have shown better results in improving literacy.

In response to concerns from school district administrators, the teachers union, and even advocacy groups like Stand for Children, the sponsors of the bill, Rankin and state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, made numerous changes.

The amended bill keeps most of the money as a per-student allocation, but it requires districts to describe how they’re spending the money and requires them to choose from reading intervention tools that the state education department has deemed effective.

In lieu of a new certification process, the bill asks all districts that receive READ Act money to ensure teachers in kindergarten through third grade have completed training on literacy. Districts have until the 2021-22 school year to do this and can request an extension.

Courses that are part of an approved teacher preparation program can be used to comply. However, Colorado education officials are also scrutinizing reading instruction at those programs. 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 sets aside up to $2 million to hire an independent evaluator to conduct an extensive analysis of how schools are teaching reading, how they are using READ Act dollars, and whether students with significant delays are making appropriate progress. The evaluator would present those finding to lawmakers in late fall of 2021, allowing them to take additional action in the 2022 legislative session, three years from now.

Backers of the bill said this is an important step to identify what schools are doing well that should be replicated and what practices need to change.

The bill repeatedly lays out key components of reading instruction that Colorado schools must provide: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, including oral skills, and reading comprehension.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, questioned whether what’s known as the science of reading will look different in a decade or two.

But Todd, a former elementary school teacher, countered: “We are making a statement to all primary teachers that we think this will make a significant difference. And I don’t believe this will ever be outdated, that we’ll say phonics doesn’t work anymore, that beginning sounds don’t work anymore. We’re saying, make sure this is the core of your reading program. And equipping teachers with that professional development is what will make a difference.”

She said the training for teachers will be meaningful and not just a matter of “seat time,” or putting in the hours.

Members of large education advocacy groups and representatives of school districts congratulated each other and the bill sponsors for how well they worked together to create a bill that improves accountability without being overly burdensome. But parents of children with dyslexia who have become activists on literacy issues expressed frustration that they didn’t even know the bill had been re-written until they showed up for an initial committee meeting on Wednesday.

These parents are concerned that the legislation doesn’t specify that phonics instruction must be “explicit, systematic, cumulative, and data-driven.” This approach, they contend, would help all students, but especially those with dyslexia, meaning their children would learn to read more easily and spend less time in interventions that take them out of the classroom.

“I am concerned that this well-intentioned legislation gets watered down and ends up not serving our children,” Amy Dobronyi, a co-chair of Colorado Kids Identified with Dyslexia, told committee members.

These parent advocates fear schools can assert that their instruction and teacher training meet the requirements of the legislation without making meaningful changes. They’re also concerned that the READ Act doesn’t mention dyslexia or require screening, even as half of children on READ Act plans have some type of disability. Separate legislation this session would fund a pilot program to screen more children for dyslexia.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, and state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, both expressed dismay that the bill gives districts two or even three years to come into compliance, years in which yet more children may receive inadequate instruction. The sponsors said it’s not realistic to provide training to tens of thousands of teachers in less time.

“Where we landed is what we think is achievable,” Rankin said frankly.

The bill could undergo yet more changes before final passage. It heads next to the Senate Appropriations Committee and will go to the House after it passes the full Senate.