Colorado teacher prep programs ranked first in nation for reading instruction, report says

A woman walks down yellow-and-blue steps.
The University of Northern Colorado was one of several teacher prep programs in the state to earn top grades in a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

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Colorado is the top state in the nation for how its teacher preparation programs train aspiring educators to teach children to read, according to a new national report

The report, released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, praised Colorado for pushing teacher prep programs to improve reading coursework through stricter state oversight. It credited those efforts with moving Colorado from the middle of the pack in the council’s 2020 report to No. 1 in 2023.

Colorado’s top billing in the council’s report reflects the state’s yearslong campaign to get more students reading on grade level by banning discredited elementary reading curriculum and mandating teacher training aligned with research on how children learn to read. Those efforts sometimes spurred pushback from school district and teacher prep program leaders, but generally the state education department held its ground.

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said Colorado’s progress in recent years demonstrates that teacher prep programs not only can change their practices, but can do so relatively quickly. 

Nationally, there’s been improvement, but more is needed, she said. “Part of the problem is it’s pockets of progress rather than progress at scale.” 

Of 15 Colorado teacher prep programs included in the report, about three-quarters received a grade of A or A+ compared with about a quarter of prep programs nationwide. Since this year’s report uses different methodology and takes a deeper dive into universities’ reading coursework than past reports, prep program grades aren’t comparable across years but state rankings are, Peske said.

Colorado is unusual in the clarity of its standards for reading coursework in teacher prep programs and its willingness to sanction programs that don’t meet those standards, she said. Over the last five years, the State Board of Education has ordered seven teacher prep programs to improve their reading coursework — withholding full state approval until they did. 

The University of Northern Colorado, the state’s largest teacher prep program, was the first program to face that penalty in 2019. Two years later, it won full state approval, and now, the council’s report has awarded its undergraduate and graduate elementary education programs an A and A+ respectively. The university’s undergrad program was also the only one in Colorado to earn full credit for its approach to reading instruction for English learners. 

Jared Stallones, dean of the University of Northern Colorado’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, said, “We really appreciate the reviews that NCTQ has done .... I think it reflects well on the work our faculty have done and revising our programs.”

He said the university decided to make changes to its reading courses after “some soul searching, and frankly, some critique back and forth between the Department of Education and our faculty.” 

Faculty members created a literacy committee to standardize practices for reading instruction across the university, clustered state reading standards in a few key courses, and gave students a chance to practice applying those standards through a tutoring program offered in a local school district. 

Emily Kahler, who will graduate this summer with a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Northern Colorado, said she took two core classes that focused on the science of reading. 

When she began substitute teaching in a kindergarten class this spring, she said, “I was able to jump right in and easily figure out where my students were using all the foundations that the program taught me.” 

Mary Bivens, executive director of educator workforce development at the Colorado Department of Education, said state officials found when they began reviewing reading content in teacher prep programs that some faculty members didn’t have deep knowledge about the science of reading — a large body of research about how children learn to read.

“It just wasn’t there for many of our programs,” she said during a recent webinar put on by the National Council on Teacher Quality. 

Experts agree that learning to read includes five key components, including phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. 

In some cases, prep programs mixed science-aligned and debunked methods, which left students confused, Bivens said. State officials emphasized that science-based methods were “the way” to teach future teachers, not simply one option. 

For the first time this year, the council’s report looked not just at whether prep programs teach scientifically-based approaches, but whether they include disproven methods, such as encouraging children to guess words based on pictures or other clues. Colorado’s prep programs had the second lowest use of such methods in the nation. 

Bivens said when the state first started applying what she described as “gentle pressure” to teacher prep programs to change their reading coursework, some deans and professors resisted, citing academic freedom. 

“The way we addressed it is, you don’t have the academic freedom if you want to be approved as a [teacher] licensure program in Colorado,” she said. 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org

Sara Martin is an intern with Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Sara at smartin@chalkbeat.org.

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