Oregon Considers $120 Million Proposal to Boost Student Literacy

The Early Literacy Success Initiative would pay for reading tutors, teacher training and require a shift to teaching methods

Julie Cleavem a reading specialist, works with students at Hallman Elementary School in Salem. (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

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A $120 million initiative to boost literacy would be one of the single largest investments of its type in Oregon history if it passes.

But during a public hearing for the proposal at the House Committee on Education on Monday, critics said it doesn’t go far enough and risks wasting money without stricter spending rules.

At the end of the hearing, the committee unanimously approved the initiative, moving it to the budget-writing Joint Ways & Means Committee. It would be the seventh major initiative attempting to raise reading proficiency for Oregon youth by the state or federal government since the late 1990s.

The Early Literacy Success Initiative, House Bill 3198, is sponsored by Gov. Tina Kotek and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Jason Kropf of Bend and Ricki Ruiz of Gresham, and Republican Reps. Bobby Levy of Echo and Mark Owens of Crane.

The bill would create three new grant programs to help school districts pay for K-3 reading tutors, teacher training in reading instruction, new reading curricula and summer reading programs.

It would make Oregon part of a nationwide movement promoting the “science of reading.” The movement promotes reading instruction methods rooted in phonics to change persistently low student reading proficiency.

Since 1998, just over a third of Oregon fourth graders have shown proficiency in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the nation’s report card. Yet decades of research shows more than 90% of kids can learn to read if they are taught with methods rooted in research about how the brain learns to decode written language. This research is based on decades of evidence that shows most people need to be taught the 44 sounds in the English language and how to map those sounds to letters and letter combinations to decode words. In essence, that means learning to “sound it out” and to recognize sound and letter patterns in words.

Yet literacy teaching in Oregon and in many other states has been largely based on the belief that reading comes naturally to the human brain and that children can learn to read if they’re surrounded by good books and given techniques beyond sounding out words, including guessing or using pictures.

Under the proposal, districts would need to comply with a rule that all materials, curricula and instruction be rooted in the “science of reading” to receive grant funding. The Oregon Department of Education and the State Board of Education would be responsible for determining whether districts were in compliance.

Wide support

More than 100 people submitted written testimony on the proposal, and almost all expressed support, including the state’s first Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Rob Saxton, who had pushed a similar proposal in 2015 that didn’t make it to a vote.

“Show me third-grade reading data in any Oregon school district and I can tell you how they teach reading,” Saxton said in his testimony. “High achievement –they are using the science of reading. Poor outcomes –they teach whole language or utilize no model at all. We can fix this!”

Those opposed to the proposal include members of the nonprofit advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia. Members expressed concern that the proposal gives districts too much latitude to choose reading programs. They want the education department to detail approved materials.

“This legislation allows for the continuation of the burden and inefficiency of having 197 superintendents and school boards be responsible for vetting curricula, high-dosage tutoring options and professional development,” Lisa Lyon, Decoding Dyslexia’s founder, wrote in her testimony. “In reading instruction, nothing can be left to chance. I believe the same must be true with legislation.”

Sarah Pope, executive director of STAND for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said the bill will force schools to buy material based on the “science of reading” and that its focus on professional development above mandating curriculum by name is necessary.

“We have not seen in the states that have done this before, that one curricular shift makes the difference,” Pope said. “That’s why we’re excited to see the investment in professional development of teachers.”

Pope said $300 million is needed to make a maximum impact statewide. With just a third of that, the state should target the highest needs districts, she said.

Pooja Bhatt, education initiative director for Kotek’s new policy initiatives team, said at the hearing that the proposal and $120 million is just the beginning of a sea change in how reading is taught to Oregon kids and how future teachers are trained to teach reading.

“This is a first step, not the only step,” she said.

Bhatt also said the governor is preparing to create a group via executive order that will investigate the state’s educator preparation programs and “reset” instructional strategies so graduates of Oregon teacher colleges enter classrooms with knowledge that “reflects decades of research and science behind reading and writing.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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