Some Aurora schools will have to switch to a new reading curriculum to comply with a state law requiring science-backed reading materials — even though district leaders initially denied that they would have to change.
About one-third of the district’s elementary and K-8 schools use a program that has been soundly rejected by state reviewers. But when asked by a reporter in mid-February about replacing the program, district officials pushed back and said the law didn’t require them to switch. The next day, after receiving confirmation from state education officials that the 2019 reading law applies to them, they softened their stance.
“No timeline has been established by CDE for districts to make changes and we will continue to work with CDE to make any necessary updates,” district spokesman Corey Christiansen said in a written statement, referring to the Colorado Department of Education.
Compared with some large Colorado districts where the vast majority of schools use unacceptable curriculums that will have to be replaced, Aurora faces a relatively light lift. But between the district’s confusion about the reading law, fuzzy communication from state officials, and ongoing friction between Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn and the school board, there’s no telling when reading curriculum will rise to the top of the district’s to-do list.
Only about a quarter of Aurora third-graders scored proficient on state literacy tests in 2019, below the state average. Of the district’s 38,000 students, 47% are English learners, a group that makes up a disproportionate share of students identified as having reading difficulties.
State education officials have long said improving reading instruction — and boosting Colorado’s stagnant literacy scores — is a top priority, but haven’t traditionally gotten involved in decisions about how educators teach reading. That’s changing because of a 2019 reading law that required reading curriculum backed by science and new training for K-3 teachers.
But some advocates, while heartened by the stricter provisions in the law, worry that state officials won’t follow through.
So far, the signals are mixed. State officials have told Chalkbeat they have the power to lower districts’ accreditation ratings if schools don’t make a good-faith effort to comply with the reading curriculum rules. At the same time, they’ve acknowledged that some district leaders are still confused about the law. In addition, state officials don’t plan to contact districts to flag unacceptable reading programs till later this spring — a full two years after the law’s passage.
“I do think this is normal in any new situation, any new law as people come into compliance,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the state education department. “Until we follow up with them, it may not quite be real yet.”
A look at the law
Colorado’s 2019 reading law — an update of the state’s 2012 landmark reading law, the READ Act — has two key pieces that deal with reading curriculum choice. The first, more well-known provision requires districts to buy state-approved reading programs if they use READ Act dollars for the purchase.
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Since many districts use other pots of money to buy reading curriculum, administrators may assume they can choose anything they want. That’s where the second provision in the 2019 law comes in.
It requires all schools to use scientifically or evidence-based K-3 reading curriculum. Through reviews of 30 core programs last year, the state determined that 10 in English and two in Spanish met this standard. The state has not publicly posted a list of reading programs it has rejected.
Wonders, the most widely used reading program in Aurora schools, is one of the programs approved by state reviewers. But a second program called “Units of Study for Teaching Reading,” or more commonly “Lucy Calkins,” didn’t make the cut. The same is true of a supplemental phonics program called Fountas & Pinnell Phonics, which is used at all of Aurora’s Lucy Calkins schools.
That means that one-third of Aurora’s district-run elementary and K-8 schools, enrolling more than 5,000 students, use unacceptable reading curriculum and are out of compliance with the law.
But during a recent phone interview, Starla Pearson, Aurora’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the district had no plans to switch away from Lucy Calkins and questioned Chalkbeat’s interpretation of the law.
Christiansen, the district spokesman who was also on the call, said, “We would encourage you to clarify that point with [the Colorado Department of Education].“
Later that day, he sought clarification himself, writing to the department, “Our understanding is that since we do not use READ funds to purchase our curriculum, the requirement to transition does not apply to APS.”
An education department spokesman wrote back: “All districts are required to use a curricula that is scientifically or evidence-based independent of the funding source used to make the purchase.“
Lindsay Drakos, a co-chair of the statewide dyslexia advocacy group COKID, said the state’s communication about acceptable curriculum is vague and leaves too much room for confusion.
She worries it’s a sign the state won’t vigorously enforce the 2019 reading law.
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“We have to have some accountability to help these kids,” she said.
Colsman, of the state education department, said that implementing the 2019 reading law is one of the State Board of Education’s top priorities.
“We take that seriously,” she said. “We will be working … on ensuring that districts come into compliance if they’re using a program that is not scientifically or evidence based.”
Filling the curriculum void
Three years ago, when Aurora adopted Wonders and Lucy Calkins, district-run schools were allowed to pick which one they wanted. About two dozen chose Wonders. Nearly a dozen chose Lucy Calkins, along with the Fountas & Pinnell Phonics supplement.
(The district’s eight charter schools with K-3 grades use a variety of reading programs, including Wonders and other state-approved options.)
Kerri Ampry-Smith, who this year teaches fully remote kindergarten at Aurora’s Fulton Academy of Excellence, generally likes the Wonders curriculum. She described it as comprehensive, with a decent phonics component, books that highlight various cultures, and materials that translate easily to the digital world.
She said it has weaknesses, too — the portion devoted to small-group reading instruction, for example — but that it’s better than some reading programs she’s used over the past 20 years. Ampry-Smith said the staff at her building originally chose Wonders because it provided lots of guidance for the school’s many new teachers.
“It tells you exactly what to do every day,” she said. “That’s highly supportive for new teachers.”
Since 2015, the district’s third-grade literacy achievement has crept up every year, with the proportion of students meeting or exceeding state standards rising from 18.4% to 22.8% in 2019. The state average in 2019 was 41.3%.
Aurora is the most diverse district in the state with students speaking more than 100 languages — most commonly Spanish.
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Cara MacCarthy, a fourth grade teacher at Vaughn Elementary, said having Wonders at some schools and Lucy Calkins at others creates some inconsistencies, but that it was far worse before 2017 when nothing was in place.
MacCarthy, who used to teach first grade, recalled spending hours cobbling bits of pieces of various programs together. Other teachers did the same.
“tt could look totally different from class to class, school to school,” she said. “That raises huge questions about equity.”
In 2017, “There was a big sense of relief when a curriculum was finally adopted, whether it was Wonders or Lucy [Calkins],” she said.
Vaughn Elementary staff ended up choosing Wonders and while MacCarthy said it’s not perfect, it provides a solid base to build on.
Are kids guessing?
Even before Colorado curriculum reviewers rejected the Lucy Calkins program last spring, literacy experts criticized the program, in part because it encourages children to guess at words based on the picture, context, or other clues. Scientists have debunked this approach, saying it’s a habit employed by poor readers and that students should use phonics skills to sound out words.
When asked whether she was concerned that the Lucy Calkins program may be encouraging students to guess, Pearson, who leads Aurora’s curriculum and instruction office, said, “I think if that’s all we used, it would be problematic.”
She also said, “I’m certainly not here to confirm or deny the power of [Lucy Calkins] materials.”
Pearson said the addition of the Fountas & Pinnell Phonics curriculum helps address shortcomings in the Lucy Calkins program. But she couldn’t speak to whether Aurora students might be experiencing inconsistent reading instruction, sometimes pushed to guess and other times to sound out words.
“Without having been in those classrooms …. I can’t say whether that is happening or not,” she said.
Aside from promoting guessing and missing key phonics instruction, experts have criticized the Lucy Calkins curriculum for providing almost no support for English learners. A 2020 review of the program by seven researchers said its claims about “practices that are ‘especially powerful’ or ‘incredibly supportive’ for English language learners are not consistent with existing research.”
Search for an Aurora school below to find out what core reading curriculum it uses in kindergarten through third grade and whether that program has been approved by the state. A core program is a comprehensive instructional program designed to teach all children in a classroom.