Did this Colorado transparency law make it easier to understand how schools teach reading?

A teacher works with students on a reading exercise; students emphatically raise their hands as the projector on a white board reads “freshen.”
A new searchable database shows what reading curriculum Colorado schools use and whether it has the state’s seal of approval.  (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

Colorado has unveiled an online database showing what reading programs schools use in kindergarten through third grade, part of a broader state effort to improve how schools teach reading.

At a time when lawmakers in many states want teaching materials publicly posted in order to limit what schools teach about race, gender, and history, the reading database is a very different example of curriculum transparency. It’s part of a package of publicly searchable data mandated by a 2021 state law championed in part by dyslexia advocates.

The effort represents Colorado’s first attempt to shed light on details that have long been out of reach for parents and the public, including what reading curriculums schools use and whether those programs have the state’s seal of approval. A 2019 state law requires Colorado schools to use reading curriculum backed by science. State officials have established a list of a dozen core programs that meet this bar.

Parents who fought for the curriculum transparency measure say the state’s databases fall short. No curriculum is listed for one-third of schools, and other information required by law is incomplete or missing entirely, said leaders of COKID, a statewide dyslexia advocacy group.

But other reading advocates said the new databases are a good starting point and can be beefed up down the road. 

“I was worried that it was going to be wonky, hard to navigate, and in the weeds, but I think it’s actually useful,” said Krista Spurgin, executive director of Stand For Children. “I imagine us … when we do literacy workshops with parents, actually showing them this tool.”

State education officials say they plan to add some additional data and make other tweaks to the databases by the end of June. 

A state lawmaker who sponsored the bipartisan reading transparency law, Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, said the database fulfills the law’s intent.

“If a parent wants to know what is being used to teach reading to their child, this will be an invaluable tool,” he said in an email. 

Transparency push

The 2021 curriculum transparency law is among several measures to come out of a yearslong push by state lawmakers, educators, and parents of students with dyslexia to boost reading proficiency among Colorado schoolchildren.

Colorado’s effort is a good idea, said Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California. He believes schools’ curriculum choices should be publicly accessible. 

The average parent probably won’t use the new tools, Polikoff said. More likely, those looking up curriculum will include well-organized parent groups, researchers, and journalists — and possibly education leaders interested in learning what curriculum other districts have adopted. 

In Colorado, it’s long been difficult for the public to find out basic information about the reading programs schools use. When Chalkbeat began asking districts two years ago about reading curriculum, some district leaders said they didn’t know what their schools used and others offered up lists full of holes. At least one district initially indicated it would cost money to provide a list. 

The landscape has changed a lot since then, with the state now tracking what schools use and putting stricter guardrails on their choices

Perhaps ironically, the state’s new reading databases come to fruition at a time when many conservative lawmakers, including in Colorado, are pushing measures that require schools to publicly post lessons, readings, and assignments in the name of transparency. 

Polikoff said the real goal of such efforts is to control how schools cover race, gender, sexuality, and history. 

“Conservatives are hijacking a mainstream idea and using it for more partisan ends,” he said. 

What’s available and what’s not

The curriculum database is located on a Colorado Department of Education landing page that also features databases showing the percentage of struggling K-3 readers in each district and each district’s plan for spending dollars earmarked to help those students. Under the 2021 transparency law, school districts must put links to the education department page on their webpages, though many districts haven’t done so yet.

For some schools, clear curriculum information is easy to find in the new database. But leaders of COKID raised concern that entries for many schools show no core curriculum. Instead, database users will find only a generic phrase indicating that the schools are reviewing curriculum and will be making a change. 

That’s the case for every elementary and K-8 school in Denver, the state’s largest district. While leaders there announced last fall that they planned to adopt the state-approved Core Knowledge Language Arts and its Spanish-language counterpart at many schools next year, Denver schools currently use a wide variety of other curriculums. Those include state-rejected programs such as Benchmark Advance 2018, Units of Study for Teaching Reading, often referred to as Lucy Calkins, and Tools of the Mind.

Lindsay Drakos, a co-chair of COKID, said it’s valuable to know that schools are planning to switch reading curriculum, but that the law specifically mandates listing what’s currently in use. She also noted that the database showing the share of struggling readers in each district fails to indicate, as required under the law, how many of those students progressed enough to exit state-mandated reading improvement plans. 

Floyd Cobb, executive director of teaching and learning at the Colorado Department of Education, said parents can find out what schools that are reviewing their curriculum are using by navigating to those schools’ data for the 2020-21 school year. 

He said department officials will add a clarification in the database so users know where to look. In addition, he said the department will add information in the next few months showing how many struggling readers graduate from reading improvement plans.

Cobb also acknowledged that the curriculum database may contain discrepancies between what districts have listed and what those districts have stated elsewhere. 

For example, Aurora district leaders have publicly stated this year that nine schools use Lucy Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell Phonics, but the database does not mention those programs. 

Boulder Valley district officials have publicly stated that most schools use a state-rejected core reading program called Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, but the database instead lists something called Primary Comprehension Toolkit. 

Cobb said the department’s first priority was to compile the information that school districts provided and complete the database — “a substantial lift all by itself.” 

“Whether or not there’s information in there that’s … inaccurate or needs to be adjusted, it’s something that we can follow up on at a later date,” he said.

The Latest

Changes to the dress code, the district’s priorities for student discipline, grade configurations, and transportation will all start in the 2024-25 school year.

Seeking culturally relevant lessons or hoping to better serve student needs, many educators make changes to curriculum. Experts worry about drifting too far from standards.

The public school district rehired Mary Bennett and Raymond Lindgren to consult on career and technical education programs and to support ongoing school construction projects.

A report from the testing group NWEA also estimates that Hispanic students in particular need more academic support during their recovery from the pandemic.

State officials acknowledged that some students still have commutes over an hour, but said they believe the district has made ‘sufficient progress.’

The vice president has championed more funding for high-poverty schools, Head Start, and school desegregation efforts. Those positions will likely face political headwinds if she wins.