Many Oregon kids still struggle to read because they are taught using ineffective methods
By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle, June 12, 2023
Carl Cole was alarmed by the growing number of students sent to him for special education in the late 1990s. He was director of special education for the Bethel School District near Eugene, and he doubted that so many kids had learning disabilities.
One of the district’s elementary schools was referring nearly one in five students to special education, and most of them were struggling readers. When he went to visit their classrooms, he realized why.
“Many kids were what we later coined ‘instructionally disabled,’ not special education,” Cole said in a recent interview. In other words, they weren’t being taught to read in ways that many experts, especially those in the field of special education, knew all kids needed to be taught.
The Capital Chronicle determined that Oregon has spent more than $250 million in the past 25 years on reading. But that money has failed to help more than a generation of students. Over the last 25 years, nearly two in five fourth graders and one in five eighth graders have scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. That means they struggle to read and understand simple words. Today, few Oregon fourth and eighth graders are proficient readers, according to the report card.
To address this, Gov. Tina Kotek is backing the state’s single largest reading investment in two decades, the Early Literacy Success Initiative, a $140 million grant program to get “evidence-based literacy instruction” methods into classrooms in districts that apply for the funding. Kotek and the bill’s supporters have said it will finally get the “science of reading” into Oregon classrooms, though it’s yet to pass the Legislature that’s been stalled by a Republican-led walkout.
Since the 1960s, hundreds of studies have been conducted to find the most effective ways to teach kids to read. There is today a large body of cognitive and neuroscience research, and evidence — often referred to as “the science of reading” — that has shown that the human brain does not learn to read or write naturally, but relies on explicit instruction in a specific set of skills. Everyone needs these skills to read, but they learn them at different speeds.
Among the first and most fundamental skills kids must develop is learning to decode written words by mapping sounds to letters and letter combinations, known as phonics. It’s a skill around 60% of kids will struggle with unless they are given frequent and explicit instruction in the earliest grades. And among the most studied instructional methods for developing those phonics skills — proven to help all kids learn to read, especially those struggling most — was one developed by education psychologists and special education experts at the University of Oregon in Eugene 60 years ago.
An ABC News anchor interviews Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann on the program “20/20” in 2007. Engelmann developed Direct Instruction for teaching reading, which had great results: Students taught with the program in a national study showed the highest gains in reading proficiency among all students, across reading skills.
Yet in many classrooms in Oregon and across the country, kids have been taught in ways that do not reflect all of that research. Instead, in many districts, curricula and instruction are based on theories popularized in the last few decades that rely less on robust phonics instruction, and instead favor teaching kids to read whole words on sight through memorization, and to use context clues and pictures to make guesses about words.
Proponents of these methods, which assume that kids will grow into reading if they’re exposed to good books, were pitted against proponents of robust phonics instruction in the mid-1990s in what’s known as “the reading wars,” which took over schools and state legislatures.
Decades of Investments
That reading would come naturally to kids was the assumption among teachers in Bethel back in 1999 and it was having detrimental effects, Cole said.
He tapped special education and education psychology experts at the University of Oregon to help him create, over three years, a sea change in reading instruction in the district’s six elementary schools. Cole and those experts went on to play roles in the largest federal investment in elementary reading instruction in U.S. history.
At the turn of the millennium, Oregon and the University of Oregon were poised to become models for the nation of how an entire state could change reading instruction to align with the decades of reading science.
Since the late 1990s, more than $250 million in state and federal tax dollars have been invested in programs to boost reading ability among Oregon students, according to an analysis of financial reports, reports from the Legislative Policy and Research Office and public records requests by the Capital Chronicle. More than a dozen committees, boards and councils were created by four governors, tasked with improving reading among Oregon students.
But those governors, legislators and education agency leaders failed to implement and sustain wide scale-teaching and curricular change that would improve outcomes for the kids struggling the most.
The Oregon Legislature has never put the state Department of Education in charge of wide scale reform or given it the authority to hold schools accountable when students fail to show improvement year after year, despite the Legislature being in charge of two-thirds of state school funding. Instead, it’s used the education department to distribute state and federal reading investments to districts, along with recommendations for spending the money. Both the Legislature and education department continue to leave decisions about reading instruction, reading curriculum and teacher training to individual teachers, school district administrators and school boards.
At no point in the last 25 years have state leaders moved to override local control — a foundational principle of Oregon education for decades — from the state’s 197 districts to uniformly improve reading instruction for all students.
The state’s latest attempt to get the science of reading into Oregon classrooms is not the first proposal of its kind. There was the Oregon Early Reading Initiative a decade ago, and the Early Success Reading Initiative a decade before that. There was the 2002 plan sent from the state education department to the federal education department for millions in funding titled: “Oregon Plan to Connect the Science of Reading to Schools and Classrooms.”
In an interview with the Capital Chronicle, Kotek said she wasn’t aware of that 21-year-old plan. Her two education policy advisors, Pooja Bhatt and Melissa Goff, declined interview requests from the Capital Chronicle.
‘The reading wars’ in Oregon
Oregon was not immune to the reading wars of the 1990s, which had become not just educational, but political. Phonics instruction was a favorite topic of former state Sen. Charles Starr, a conservative Republican from Hillsboro known for controversial proposals such as allowing schools to post signs of the Ten Commandments. But Starr was onto something with reading instruction. He tried at least three times between 1998 and 2003 to propose legislation that would mandate Oregon school districts provide explicit phonics instruction in the earliest grades and ensure schools had access to curricula that included phonics instruction. According to meeting minutes from a hearing on one of Starr’s bills, in May 1999, just 15 of the state’s 197 districts had K-5 literacy instruction that included direct phonics instruction.
“The failure to learn to read is the most serious problem facing education in the U.S. today,” he told his peers in the Legislature 24 years ago.
Passage of Starr’s phonics proposals through the Republican controlled House and Senate were largely divided along party lines, and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed two of Starr’s three proposals that made it to his desk. Mandating phonics nationwide had come to be seen as Republican dogma, an attempt to standardize and regulate teachers and teaching. An article in the Willamette Week from 2001 quoted one lobbyist saying Starr had become obsessed with phonics.
“Nearly every bill that came up in committee he attached a phonics amendment to. There was the phonics game, a phonics pilot program, it was silly,” the lobbyist said.
It’s unclear if Kitzhaber had any strong political feelings about Starr’s bills. The then-governor was arguably more preoccupied at the time with keeping schools financially solvent than he was with reading curriculum. There wasn’t any money for massive educational reform. Voters had passed Measure 5 in 1991 and Measure 50 in 1997, both of which capped the state’s ability to tax property to help pay for schools. School funding from those taxes had dropped by two-thirds. The state education department didn’t even have a reading specialist at the time to oversee a curricular shift or any major investment in phonics. Kitzhaber had cut the position to save money.
Bethel Reading Project
To transform reading instruction in Bethel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cole tapped three heavy hitters from the University of Oregon. Edward Kame’enui, Deborah Simmons and Beth Harn were all experts in reading and specifically, special education reading instruction.
Cole and the experts discovered there was no continuity in how reading was taught across classrooms, grades and schools in Bethel, because of local control. Many students were not being taught according to the science. Students might get some phonics instruction, but not enough to fully develop those decoding skills. Some students were taught to read and memorize whole words before they had learned to decode them, akin to learning how to multiply before learning to add.
The philosophy was, according to Cole: “Kids will read when they’re ready.”
With a $700,000 federal grant, they launched the Bethel Reading Project. They began retraining teachers and educational assistants in reading science, providing frequent assessments and extra instruction for students struggling most. Teachers agreed to switch to curricula focused on explicit phonics instruction. Within three years, Bethel went from about 15% of students leaving first grade unable to read, to less than 2%. By 2003, the proportion of third graders meeting state standards in reading rose from 79% to 92%. School employee associations and leaders in other districts asked Cole’s staff and the UO researchers to give presentations about what they’d done in Bethel, but there wasn’t any major effort from Oregon education leaders to fund or scale the experiment elsewhere, he said.
“I actually got tired of doing Oregon presentations because we did so many of them,” Cole said. “There wasn’t any strong support from the Oregon Department of Education.”
While the Bethel Reading Project was wrapping up, the federal government was rolling out its single largest investment — $6 billion over six years — in improving reading proficiency called “Reading First.” It was part of the No Child Left Behind Act that Congress passed in 2001, which required states to get all students to “proficient” levels on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. If schools wanted a piece of the $6 billion, they needed to get reading instruction in their classrooms aligned with the reading science.
Kame’enui and Simmons would become major architects of Reading First and of the program’s rollout in Oregon. Leaders at the state department of education submitted a 220-page application for Reading First money, including the seven-point plan titled “Oregon Plan to Connect the Science of Reading to Schools and Classrooms.”
In 2002, UO became one of three universities in the nation that was designated a “Reading First Center” to retrain teachers, train reading coaches for schools and facilitate research to instruct teachers across the U.S. on the most effective instructional methods rooted in scientific research.
“We would develop all these materials and hold these institutes for three, four, maybe five days — all day long — training teachers on the big ideas of beginning reading,” Kame’enui said.
For many districts, Reading First was the first time there was money to hire reading specialists and reading coaches for schools. It was also, for many, the first time students got explicit and direct phonics instruction, especially kids who struggled the most.
The rollout wasn’t perfect across the country, and some studies would later find that gains didn’t materialize or were not sustained in schools where implementation was poorly done. But in many places where Reading First was implemented well, it seemed to be working.
Before Reading First, only 18% of students at Humboldt Elementary School in Portland were at grade level for reading. After four years of Reading First, nearly 75% were.
Students from the University of Oregon made the documentary Hope For Humboldt in 2008, showing the progress students at the Portland elementary school had made under Reading First.
Kame’enui and Simmons went on to consult with the U.S. Department of Education. Cole, the special education director at Bethel, went to work for the Western Regional Reading First Center to help spread Reading First across the West and to support schools with its implementation.
But by 2008, Reading First had imploded. Academics whose curriculum did not meet program standards accused Kame’enui, Simmons and other prominent Reading First figures of using their positions to promote their own textbooks and materials for financial gain. The two professors resigned from advisory positions in the program, and from work they were doing with the U.S. Department of Education. Kame’enui returned to the University of Oregon. He maintains that he and Simmons did not try to promote their work to districts to earn more money.
“It was very painful, but it was political,” Kame’enui said.
By the end of 2008, the reading first money had dried up and a financial crisis and recession hit.
Jamila Williams was principal at Humboldt Elementary during Reading First. The school closed in 2013, and Williams lives in Arizona now, but she remembers the fallout vividly.
“We ended up having to really cut things that were important for the kids,” she said, “but we didn’t have the money for it.”
Despite efforts to sustain gains from Reading First, then superintendent of instruction, Susan Castillo, and then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski remained resistant to instructional mandates, and sustaining funding for schools continued to be the central educational challenge for the Legislature.
Castillo resigned in 2012, and Kitzhaber, who had been elected governor after a seven-year hiatus, appointed former Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Rob Saxton to the position. Saxton had overseen a successful reading intervention program based on direct instruction and scientifically proven reading methods that targeted students struggling most in his district. It had been so successful that reading experts from his district went on to offer voluntary training to school staff in 90 other Oregon districts.
Saxton began developing a proposal for the single largest state investment in state history in reading instruction: $180 million for the “Kindergarten Through Grade Three Reading Initiative” to get kids reading by third grade. It would have provided schools, much like Reading First did, with grants to pay for reading coaches, teacher training and curriculum rooted in the reading science.
“Governor Kitzhaber promised me that he would not sign the budget bill into law until this literacy initiative was funded,” Saxton told the Capital Chronicle.
But in February 2015, Kitzhaber abruptly resigned following ethics violations and the attempt died. Saxton resigned several months later to take a job leading the Northwest Regional Education Service District.
“Eight years have gone by,” Saxton said. “Fifty thousand students per class go through Oregon schools. That means 400,000 students have not had the kind of exposure to literacy instruction that they should have had in the intervening time.”
In those eight years that followed, the Legislature focused on initiatives that would balance the state school fund after decades of disinvestment. Then-Secretary of State Kate Brown became Oregon’s governor, and was focused on raising the state’s graduation rate, which was among the lowest in the nation. She tapped a former Bethel Schools superintendent, Colt Gill, to become her education innovation officer and eventually to lead the education department.
Graduation rates in Oregon rose under Gill’s leadership, but according to state assessments, it’s not because students improved in their reading abilities. Gill, whose tenure ends this month, continued to consult with Kame’enui and other experts at the University of Oregon while at Bethel and at the department of education, he said. But any attempt at instructional reform in reading took a backseat to his priorities as director of the department when, a year into the job, COVID hit.
He said he hopes to see the Early Literacy Success Initiative signed into law. It is, in many ways, a carbon copy of what his predecessor, Rob Saxton, had proposed eight years ago, with about $40 million less than what Saxton had wanted at the time. Gill, like his predecessors, trusts districts to be in charge of improving reading instruction without the state education department taking the lead.
“We’re going to have to continue to work on it over the next several biennia to be able to get the outcomes we’re looking for,” he said. “We didn’t get here overnight.”
FEATURED IMAGE: An elementary school student who needs extra help learning to read uses letter tiles with Ronda Fritz, a professor at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
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