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Legislators Push for Money to Train Oregon Teachers in the Science of Reading

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Nearly 3,000 teachers in Oregon schools serving students with the highest needs could soon get paid to learn more about the science of reading. 

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, is asking her colleagues in the Joint Ways and Means Committee of the legislature to allocate $31 million of Oregon’s federal Covid relief funds for schools, as well as money from the state’s Student Investment Account, to bring teachers up to date in how to teach reading. 

A portion of the funding would also pay for tutoring that can get struggling students up to grade level in reading. Both the teacher training and student tutoring would be administered online by Eastern Oregon University, and would be available to K-5 teachers and students in more than 60 school districts that have four-year graduation rates below 67% and that qualify for “targeted support and improvement” under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We know that kids are further behind than ever in their learning,” Smith Warner said. “This just feels like such a smart, focused thing that we can do. Not only are you teaching teachers how to teach reading better, but it will always be with them no matter what school they go to.”

Smith Warner has the support of several colleagues, including Reps. Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, and Bobby Levy, R-Echo, she said. She also has support from the non-profit literacy group Oregon Kids Read and the Oregon chapter of the nationwide advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia. 

The primary reason students struggle to read is not because of any cognitive deficits or learning disabilities, but because they have not learned phonological skills – that is, how sounds connect with letters – according to the Journal of Educational Psychology

Yet students across the United States struggle with reading proficiency, in large part because their teachers were not instructed in how to teach reading in ways that line up with science and best practices, according to the Journal of Learning Disabilities. This is because of decades of political and ideological battles over reading science and how students should be taught, according to James Kim, an expert on literacy intervention at Harvard University. 

Oregon is no exception to low reading proficiency among students. For years, schools in the state have struggled to increase reading proficiency among fourth and eighth graders. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is often called the nation’s report card. It measures students’ grasp of math and reading.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, just about one-third of Oregon fourth graders and eighth graders tested at or above proficient in reading. This mirrors nationwide scores for fourth and eighth graders, too.

Proficiency is defined as having competency and knowledge of subject matter and an ability to apply it to real world situations. 

With the $31 million, Smith Warner wants to pay teachers to undertake training in a program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which was created by literacy expert Louisa Moates. The training involves learning the science of how the brain learns to read and how it develops phonological awareness – understanding how sounds connect with letters – learning how to identify students with dyslexia, and using research to come up with targeted instruction for students who are struggling.

Teachers in Portland, Beaverton and Lake Oswego have already been offered such training by their districts, and Smith Warner wants it available at schools statewide. 

The training would be over six to 12 months, and would be administered online through Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande. 

The training played a large role in helping Mississippi fourth and eighth graders make historic gains in reading during the last few years.

In 2013 the Mississippi Legislature mandated that new teachers pass an exam on reading science to be licensed to teach in elementary schools. The state had some of the lowest reading scores in the country. 

At the urging of a Mississippi governor’s task force, college professors who taught education as well as elementary school teachers around the state began to undertake Language Essentials training. By 2019, the state’s fourth and eighth graders increased their reading scores by more than 10% over the previous year. That was the largest gain of any state. 

In Oregon, the $31 million sought by Smith Warner would pay for substitute teachers to fill in for teachers taking time off for the training. 

Funds would also go to paying for tutoring in the Ignite! Reading program, which involves individual instruction over Zoom for 15 minutes a day, five days a week, until a struggling student is caught up in reading. The tutoring would reach about 4,000 Oregon students with the greatest need, according to Smith Warner.

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 Les Zaitz for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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