Colorado Board of Education limits exceptions to rule requiring teacher training on reading instruction

A group of four schoolboys gathered at a brown paper-covered table, studying a stylized cartoon book to be used as reference material, for a drawing they were asked to create in the classroom.
Colorado’s State Board of Education is holding fast to efforts meant to improve reading proficiency rates. (Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

The Colorado State Board of Education doesn’t plan to give school districts extra time to comply with a new rule requiring early elementary teachers to receive 45 hours of training on how to teach reading. 

While the board acknowledged individual teachers facing extraordinary hardship may receive extensions, it generally agreed that schools or districts should not receive waivers from the existing timeline, as some district leaders or education groups have suggested. 

The decision to limit extensions and waivers, backed by most of the board’s seven members at Thursday’s meeting, spotlights the board’s tendency to hold fast to efforts aimed at boosting the number of Colorado children who can read well by the end of third grade. 

Last spring, the State board refused to shorten the 45-hour training length as some education groups had sought, and in July, it resisted a push to delay fall reading assessments for early elementary students until winter.

Under the new training rule, which came out of a 2019 update of Colorado’s landmark reading law, K-3 teachers have until the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to complete the 45 hours of training or demonstrate the equivalent knowledge in another way. 

State officials said they field at least a couple questions about extensions or waivers in monthly webinars with educators, plus have received messages from superintendents and other education leaders about the issue.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes told board members that requests for waivers stem partly from the strain on educators from COVID-related disruptions and change.

“I don’t think it’s just them wanting to kick the can down the road,” said. There’s a “level of exhaustion out there that is palpable.” 

Colorado’s K-3 teachers can meet the new requirement in more than a half-dozen ways. They can take one of several state-approved training courses, including a free online version rolling out this month or pass a test on elementary reading instruction.

Several board members said they were open to providing flexibility to individual teachers, but worried that offering blanket extensions would lead to a deluge of requests from districts. 

“What I don’t want to do is have us send the message that this is not urgent,” said board member Rebecca McClellan. “I think our board has made a commitment to make sure that the price for delay … is not borne by students who then don’t have access to instruction using the science of reading.”

Board member Steve Durham said, “Other than extreme personal hardship, I don’t believe we ought to be granting any waivers.” 

The board didn’t take an official vote on the matter Thursday, but rather gave direction to state education officials who will oversee districts’ compliance with the new rule.

Technically, the state could deny funding for struggling readers to school districts that don’t comply with the training requirements by the deadline. But state officials, with board members voicing agreement, indicated that schools or districts that have made a good-faith effort to ensure most K-3 teachers meet the requirement — but have a few stragglers — will still get the money.

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