Why do so many Colorado students struggle to read? Flawed curriculum is part of the problem.

School districts that serve tens of thousands of Colorado students are using discredited or inconsistent approaches to teach children how to read, contributing to the state’s persistently low rates of reading proficiency.

A Chalkbeat investigation found the state’s 30 largest school districts and three charter networks together use three dozen core curriculums, often different ones in neighboring schools. Experts on curriculum say such variation can be found in many states, but should raise questions about which students get left behind by the mish-mash of methods. 

Six in 10 third-graders can’t read proficiently, even eight years after a landmark reading law that earmarked millions annually to help struggling readers. One reason for this is that many schools rely on methods that aren’t supported by research. 

Often, the students who lose out are those who already face other challenges, like poverty and disability.

“It’s astonishing how much the United States under-teaches all of its students, but it particularly lowers the bar for its disadvantaged students,” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Baltimore. “It’s crucial at pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, grades one and two that rigorous materials are used.”

Now, amid activism by parents of dyslexic children, action from frustrated lawmakers, and news coverage about flawed instructional approaches, state leaders are taking new steps to boost reading skills. Curriculum — the roadmap for what and how teachers teach — is one front in that effort, with a new law giving state education officials stronger levers to ensure that schools are using scientifically sound methods for reading instruction. 

While the state has recently cracked down on how teacher preparation programs cover reading and will soon require current teachers to prove they’ve completed training on reading instruction, it remains to be seen how vigorously the state will use its new authority over curriculum.

"It’s astonishing how much the United States under-teaches all of its students, but it particularly lowers the bar for its disadvantaged students... It’s crucial at pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, grades one and two that rigorous materials are used."

David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Baltimore

Experts agree that reading proficiently by the end of third grade is critical, giving students a foundation for learning in other subjects, increasing their chances of graduating from high school, and impacting their future earning potential. 

But low-quality curriculum can hold students back. 

A large body of research says explicit, systematic phonics is a must. In other words, teachers must directly and methodically teach children the connection between letter combinations and sounds. That alone isn’t enough to forge good readers, but it’s an essential step that some curriculums skip or gloss over.

Jennifer Fritz, the mother of a sixth grader with dyslexia, never knew much about curriculum until her son began having problems with reading in first grade. That’s when she began asking questions about the program that was used in his school, and many other schools in their suburban Denver district.

But she often didn’t get clear-cut answers and her son ended up in tutoring that was more of the same — “louder and slower,” she called it. When he was in fourth grade, she sent him to a tutor who specialized in a phonics-heavy approach and things finally clicked. 

Looking back, Fritz said she’s sad about all the time wasted in her son’s young life chasing after reading help. She knows other factors played a role, but said the right curriculum early on would have made a big difference.

“I strongly believe … that he would have learned much quicker and wouldn’t have struggled with his [reading) foundation.”

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All over the map

Through public records requests, Chalkbeat found that Colorado’s 30 largest school districts plus three charter networks — KIPP, Rocky Mountain Prep and University Prep — together use three dozen core curriculums to teach children how to read. The 92,000-student Denver district alone uses a dozen different curriculums. 

Curriculum quality also varies widely. Nearly a quarter of the districts and charter networks polled use at least one core reading curriculum judged unacceptable by the Colorado Department of Education or given the lowest “red” rating by EdReports, a national nonprofit that reviews instructional materials for reading, math, and science. 

The Education Department and EdReports use somewhat different rating criteria; their results match up generally, but not always. Unlike the Education Department, which either approves a curriculum or doesn’t, EdReports has a three-tier rating system, with green the highest rating, yellow the middle rating, and red the lowest. EdReports is one of the only groups that provides free, publicly available curriculum reviews. 

Chalkbeat’s analysis found that half of districts use a core curriculum that hasn’t been reviewed by the state or EdReports, often because it’s old or isn’t considered a comprehensive program for reading instruction. In a few cases, districts reported using a newer curriculum slated for evaluation by the Education Department or EdReports sometime this year.

Experts agree that five pillars support solid reading instruction: phonemic awareness — the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in language — phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

Two large Colorado districts — Jeffco and Adams 12 — use reading curriculums that outside evaluators haven’t evaluated because district staff wrote it themselves. While district- or teacher-developed curriculum isn’t unusual, such internal efforts can make it hard for parents or the public to know how it was developed or whether it meets quality benchmarks. 

Generally speaking, experts say three dozen primary reading curriculums in Colorado school districts is too many. Some of them don’t incorporate instructional practices backed by research or align to grade-level standards. 

"Without a strong curriculum what often happens is teachers go out and create their own... They’re going to non-curated sites like Google, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers."

Eric Hirsch, executive director of EdReports

But even if all of them did, the sheer volume makes it impossible for the state to align assessments to them or exercise quality control over how teachers are trained on curriculum, said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Baltimore. Plus, with so many curriculums in use, highly mobile students can miss key skills or end up repeating lessons when they switch schools.

“My first feeling is that those districts that are using red or non-green, or very old curriculum have something to answer for,” he said. “Parents should be asking, ‘Why is that happening?’”

Steiner and other experts say choosing a high-quality curriculum aligned to state standards is a critical first step when it comes to ensuring that all students, including children of color and those from low-income families, learn to read well. 

Eric Hirsch, executive director of EdReports, said weak curriculum can lead teachers to try to fill the gaps by “hunting and pecking across the internet.” 

“Without a strong curriculum what often happens is teachers go out and create their own,” and often it’s not on grade level, he said. “They’re going to non-curated sites like Google, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers.”

New oversight

Colorado’s school districts have long had the autonomy to pick any curriculum they wanted or none at all. But a new law passed last spring — an update of the state’s 2012 reading law —  now requires school districts purchasing core reading curriculum with dollars earmarked for struggling readers to pick from a state-approved list. The state is in the process of updating that list, with a final version expected in early April. 

While many districts buy curriculum with general fund dollars and won’t be subject to this new provision in the law, all districts will have to comply with another new requirement. Starting next school year, they’ll have to report annually which scientifically based reading curriculum they use. 

Districts that report a curriculum that was reviewed by the state but didn’t make the approved list could face consequences. State officials said they can lower a district’s accreditation if it doesn’t make “a good faith effort” to comply with the rules. But they also said they understand districts “can’t turn on a dime.” Adopting new curriculum is expensive and requires training teachers in the new approach.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning at the Colorado Department of Education, said in an email that state staff “will work with districts to get into compliance with the requirements of [the law] should they be using an instructional program that has not been determined to be evidence-based or scientifically based.” 

In short, even with the new rules, it’s not clear how quickly districts using outdated or discredited approaches will adopt new curriculum. 

Leaders from some districts surveyed said they’re waiting until the state releases its new list of approved programs to make reading curriculum changes. Others adopted new reading curriculum last year — in several cases choosing one of the state’s currently approved programs.  

In 2018, the state began cracking down on how teacher preparation programs cover reading. Soon, it will require current teachers to prove they’ve completed rigorous training on reading instruction. 

Turning the ship

Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest district, has not switched curriculum, but has been putting more emphasis this year on daily phonics instruction. Educators noticed big skills gaps among early elementary school students, and test data showed that even students reading on grade level struggle with the sounds letters make.

“Phonics is important for all students — and it’s absolutely critical for our most underserved students, particularly our students of color,” Anna Pendleton, the district’s director of literacy, told the school board recently.

Some schools, such as Willow Elementary, got a head start on the phonics push. With help from a district grant, Willow trained all of its K-3 teachers on Orton-Gillingham, a structured literacy approach that can be used with all students, but especially benefits those with dyslexia.

On a recent morning, one Willow teacher, Katlyn Pedone, held up flash cards with letters that her second graders traced in the air with two fingers. For some cards, she asked students about the corresponding rule. 

One showed the letter v and the students said in unison, “No English word ends with v. Always followed by an e at the end.” 

For a card that showed “ed,” the children responded, “Eh-duh. Past tense.”

This is the second year Willow teachers are using Orton-Gillingham strategies in the classroom, and leaders said students are making gains.

“Giving people a strong curriculum is a good first step,” Willow Principal Amy Gile said. “But professional development and coaching around it is crucial.”

The Lucy Debate

One popular balanced literacy curriculum in Colorado and elsewhere has raised red flags for researchers who say it lets some students fall through the cracks. It’s called “Units of Study” and is co-authored by Lucy Calkins, a longtime education professor at Columbia University. The state is currently reviewing it and EdReports may review it in the coming year.

Six Colorado districts surveyed by Chalkbeat, including Denver, Aurora, and Cherry Creek, use the program in some schools. Nationwide, it’s the third most-used core curriculum, according to a survey by Education Week.

In a recent review of “Units of Study,” seven reading researchers lauded the program’s beautiful craftsmanship, lively lessons, and emphasis on “loving to read,” but they also found serious flaws. They said “Units of Study” dedicates too little time to phonics, doesn’t focus on teaching it in a direct and systematic way, makes too many practice activities optional, and includes almost no support for English learners. 

They also criticized the inclusion of a strategy called “three-cueing,” which encourages students to guess at words based on the picture, the context, or other clues — an approach cognitive scientists say runs counter to research and hinders the development of crucial decoding skills.

The strategy was evident in a second-grade classroom at Global Primary Academy, one of five schools in the 9,000-student Mapleton district north of Denver that uses the Lucy Calkins program. A large bulletin board at the back of the classroom included eight laminated placards giving children suggestions for figuring out tricky words. They included, “Check the picture and think, ‘What would make sense’” and “Use what’s happening in the story.”

Principal A.J. Staniszewski acknowledged that such strategies don’t align with science and said, “You’ll see us moving away from that.” 

But he also said curriculum decisions can be complex and that layering different reading programs to meet different needs is a fact of life. Last year, the school added a new program from Calkins called “Units of Study in Phonics” to fill some of the gaps in the main program. (The report from the seven researchers said the phonics program follows several research-based recommendations, but rushes through some skills and sometimes runs counter to the main program.)

Teachers at Global Primary also use some Orton-Gillingham methods, plus two other programs targeting students who struggle with fluency or comprehension.  

On a recent morning teacher Brie Schwab worked with her 21 first-graders — each sitting on the rug with a marker and whiteboard — on the letter combination “ai.” It was part of the Lucy Calkins phonics programs. She asked her students to write down a word with “ai” that makes flowers bloom in the spring. 

“It starts with ruh-ruh-ruh,” she hinted. Most students correctly wrote down rain.

Schwab, who holds a bachelor’s degree in reading curriculum and instruction, described the intensive Orton-Gillingham course she took through the district as fantastic, and said, “It really should be part of any teaching program.” 

But she also sees the benefits of combining programs. Schwab said Calkins’ new phonics program helps students apply the skills they learned in isolation through Orton-Gillingham.

While layering different curriculums and resources together is common in classrooms nationwide, Hirsch, of EdReports, said it doesn’t mean the components always match up well. The dose and pacing may be different or underlying methods may be contradictory.

“Do those ingredients go together and actually lead to a good-tasting soup?” he said.

Karen Ernst, a kindergarten teacher in Adams 14, is in her 23rd year of teaching and is now in a program through Regis University to earn her Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement while her school and district go through changes in literacy curriculum.

All of it has made her realize that her previous approach — which she described as giving students a “little taste” of phonics — was not working.

“What I have done in the past was not the best route,” Ernst said. 

Under her district’s new use of SuperKids curriculum, which the state approved and which earned a yellow rating on EdReports, she said she can focus more time on foundational skills with her students. She also said she likes that the curriculum is deliberate about when words are introduced, based on what students have been practicing and what they should be able to decode so far. 

“Before we went wide and not deep, but that doesn’t seem to work. Superkids spends eight days on the letter b, for example.” Ernst said. 

Now, kids are “believing in themselves as readers,” Ernst said. “The progress is so much faster.”

Reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting from Denver and Adams 14. They, along with Sharon Noguchi and Erica Meltzer, helped with data collection.