Colorado cracks down on schools using weak reading curriculum. Advocates worry about backpedaling.

Close-up of students reading a book that says “Cool colors. There are over 10,000 colorful kinds of bird!”
Denver, Jeffco, Douglas County, and Cherry Creek are among school districts piloting or selecting state-approved K-3 reading curriculum this year. (Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat)

Colorado officials have ordered 15% of the state’s school districts to replace low-quality elementary reading programs, a major step toward enforcing a 2019 law that requires schools to use reading curriculum backed by science in kindergarten through third grade. 

The state education department sent out dozens of letters in late October notifying districts that one or more of their schools use unacceptable reading curriculum and that district officials must submit plans by Jan. 17 for complying with the law. State officials said they likely will send more letters after clarifying what curriculum some districts are using.

Given Colorado’s local-control ethos and the wide latitude schools have long enjoyed in choosing curriculum, the state’s oversight effort is unprecedented and already appears to have prompted some of Colorado’s largest districts to adopt new reading programs.

But some literacy advocates worry that there are signs of state backpedaling after a recent decision by education department leaders to allow at least 14 districts to continue using a state-rejected reading program called ReadyGEN.

Even so, the state’s crackdown on K-3 reading curriculum seems to be working. Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education, said only 41% of Colorado’s 178 school districts last spring met rules on K-3 reading curriculum. This fall, that proportion has risen to 63%. 

Officials from the 90,000-student Denver district announced Thursday at a public literacy event organized by Chalkbeat that they’re piloting a state-approved reading program — Core Knowledge Language Arts — in some schools this year, with plans for a wider adoption in the coming year. 

The curriculum is among a dozen core reading programs that the state has approved for use in kindergarten through third grade. 

Officials in the Jeffco, Dougco, and Cherry Creek districts are also piloting or selecting state-approved reading programs this year. Some schools in the three districts have been using a state-rejected reading program commonly called Lucy Calkins, which experts have criticized for encouraging students to guess at words instead of sounding them out.

A spokesman for the Eagle County district in western Colorado said schools there switched to new state-approved reading curriculum — Into Reading or the Spanish version ¡Arriba la Lectura! — midway through last year.

At least one district appears poised to challenge the state’s new rules on reading curriculum. A spokesman for the 29,000-student Boulder Valley district said district schools will continue using Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, a core program rejected by Colorado reviewers in 2020 and by evaluators for the nonprofit curriculum review organization, EdReports, earlier this month.

State officials said they didn’t send a letter to Boulder Valley about Fountas & Pinnell Classroom because the district didn’t include that curriculum in the list of K-3 reading programs they submitted to the state. Instead, the district cited another program from the same publisher that has not been vetted by the state. 

District spokesman Randy Barber said Fountas & Pinnell Classroom is part of a “layered approach” to reading instruction that also includes a state-approved supplemental phonics program called Fundations. He said the district has not received a letter from the state citing problems with Fountas & Pinnell Classroom. 

A similar issue seems to be at play in the 38,000-student Aurora district. Last year, one-third of schools there used Lucy Calkins. But state officials said Monday they didn’t send a letter to Aurora because that curriculum wasn’t included in the list of K-3 reading programs the district submitted to the state. Aurora district officials could not be reached for comment on Monday.  

School districts often adopt new curriculum every six or seven years. Such purchases can be expensive, but the influx of federal COVID relief money means schools now have extra cash that can cover such one-time expenses. Experts say well-trained teachers are critical to teaching reading well, but that high-quality curriculum can make that job easier. 

Among the districts that received state letters in October warning that they used unacceptable K-3 reading curriculum were those using ReadyGEN in some grades or schools, including St. Vrain Valley, Boulder Valley, 27J, and Thompson on the Front Range and Roaring Fork and Salida in western Colorado. Soon after, the state withdrew its demands for those districts to switch.

Along with several other commonly used reading programs, ReadyGEN was reviewed and rejected by state evaluators in spring 2020. Schools using programs that failed the state’s review would have to replace them, state officials said then, and several times since.

But now, the message is changing. 

Education department officials say even though state reviewers rejected ReadyGEN, schools can keep using it because it passed the part of the state review focused on whether it was scientifically or evidence-based — the criteria specified in the 2019 law — despite having other flaws. 

“We did hear from districts that said, ‘Your own review process found this to be meeting scientifically or evidence-based standards,’” Colsman said.

She said that St. Vrain Valley officials contacted her about the issue even before the state sent letters to districts about switching reading programs. 

Lindsay Drakos, a co-chair of the statewide dyslexia advocacy group COKID, said by email that the state’s shifting stance on ReadyGEN dilutes the state’s reading law and could open the door for schools to use other rejected programs. 

“If a curriculum is reviewed and rejected, then I believe that is that — it shouldn’t be used in schools in Colorado,” she said. 

Colsman said the state’s reversal on ReadyGEN points to “the realities of policy implementation because as we got into actually reviewing what districts were using, you realize that not everything fits into a neat bucket.”

Reviewers of ReadyGEN said the program met key standards for science-based reading instruction, but they noted it doesn’t thoroughly cover all foundational skills. They recommended teachers compensate for these shortcomings by using the company’s intervention lessons, a supplement designed for struggling readers, for all students.

Education department officials said the intervention lessons must be purchased separately and that while the state can encourage schools to buy and use those lessons, they can’t require it. ReadyGEN also fell short on the state’s review in the “usability” category because reviewers said it was hard to navigate. 

In Denver, the state’s largest district, many schools use state-rejected curriculum, with the most common ones being the 2018 version of Benchmark Advance and Benchmark Adelante, the program’s Spanish version.

Meredith Stolte, the district’s director of humanities, said during Thursday’s literacy event that she’s seen a big difference in reading instruction in the pilot classrooms.

“When children engage in the explicit and systematic way of learning to read, the light in them is completely different because ... they can understand and it’s not a guessing game,” she said, “which, to be honest, is some of what exists in older curriculum like Benchmark.” 

Parent Priscila Ramirez, who also spoke at the literacy event, described the frustration she felt about the reading instruction her son, now a fourth-grader, received in Denver. 

“Unfortunately, after many years and different schools we saw that he wasn’t learning,” she said. “He wasn’t learning because the learning system or the curriculum that is followed in most schools is not functional for children with dyslexia.”

If districts don’t submit a plan to switch from subpar reading curriculum by the state’s Jan. 17 deadline, Colsman said the department will send reminders. If that doesn’t work, the department could lower districts’ accreditation rating.

“We want to avoid that as as much as possible because ... it’s a blunt instrument,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story cited Lewis-Palmer and Ouray as two of the districts ordered by the state to replace unacceptable reading curriculum. While the districts did receive those letters, state officials wrote back soon after and told district officials to disregard the letter because Lewis-Palmer and Ouray are in compliance with state reading curriculum rules. The districts use state-approved reading programs. In addition, a previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that the Durango school district had already switched curriculums. It was the Eagle County district.

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