State, schools battle over control of reading curriculum
“It has consumed my life.”
That’s what Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said about applying for a waiver from a state mandate that districts implement one of seven K-3 reading programs starting July 1, an application she worked on “probably every weekend, and many late nights, over two months.”
“Commercial programs are not the magic bullet. They de-professionalize teachers and cannot be a one-size-fits-all,” Austin said.
More than half of school districts in the state are seeking waivers that would allow them to use a program other than the ones approved. They share Austin’s reasons, along with preferring their own curriculum and balking at the cost of implementing a new program: hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents survey in the fall showed that only 11 of 128 districts that responded already use one of the six programs the Connecticut State Department of Education had approved at the time, Executive Director Fran Rabinowitz said. And she said assessment results from these 11 districts over the past five years “were very mixed.”
This mandate was part of the state’s “Right to Read” legislation passed in 2021, which established the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, tasked it with approving at least five reading curriculum programs, and allowed for a waiver process. The legislation passed out of the Education Committee on a bipartisan basis, never made it to the House or Senate floor, and was buried in the 790-page budget implementer bill, which passed along party lines.
Champions of the bill say something needed to be done to address the fact that on the state’s most recent standardized assessment, only 46.7% of students met or exceeded standards in English Language Arts.
Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, wrote in March 2021 that nearly half of public school students fell short of grade-level reading expectations, with worse outcomes for students of color, because the state’s hands-off approach “has failed to properly train all educators and to require proven, evidence-based practices and programs in every classroom.”
She is focused on the science of reading, a body of research that says kids need to be specifically taught to sound out letters to learn to read. She said her bill “will finally acknowledge that there is a proven method for literacy instruction, and that we need to use it in all of our Connecticut classrooms.”
This past December, after the state released approved programs, Miller wrote in an op-ed in The Connecticut Post, “It will be a heavy lift for those currently using curricula that have not made the cut, but in the end, it will be worth it for the success of our children’s future.”
The seven programs come from American Reading Company, Amplify Education Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Imagine Learning, McGraw Hill Education, Open Up Resources, and Savvas Learning Company.
The deadline for a waiver was Tuesday. Melissa Hickey, the department’s reading and literacy director, said Wednesday the state has received 91 applications, and more districts have asked for an extension. She hopes that through the waiver process, more programs will be added to the approved list.
Hickey said in a Feb. 15 email to a New London Board of Education member the review process will depend on length and number of applications, but “based on our first review, each application will take at least two days to review, ask clarifying questions, etc. We are in the process of obtaining reviewers.”
Education Committee Co-Chair Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, said he knows some superintendents submitted 10-page waivers and some submitted 600 pages.
The committee on Wednesday held a public hearing on a bill that would delay the start date for fully implementing an approved reading model, for boards of education that haven’t been granted a waiver, until the school year starting July 1, 2025.
Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker supports a delay, saying it will give boards of education more time to pilot programs, offer professional development, and “braid funding sources” to support the purchase of literacy materials.
Among about 40 people who submitted written testimony on the bill, a vast majority ― mostly superintendents, teachers and literacy specialists ― indicated they don’t want to see a mandate for commercial programs at all, especially an unfunded one. A department of education spokesperson didn’t respond to an email or text seeking comment.
Concerns over costs and content
Education Committee Ranking Member Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, voted the legislation out of committee in 2021 and said 90% of it is great, but she doesn’t want districts “forced into choosing commercialized programs” and didn’t know the waiver process would be so labor-intensive.
But McCarty said she appreciates the department of education and believes they’re listening, and understands that with the waivers, the department wants complete information to make an assessment whether the district is moving in the right direction.
Waterford Superintendent Thomas W. Giard III said the district submitted a 140-page waiver application. It provided an overview of the current program, reading assessment data, and how Waterford is addressing kids who aren’t meeting standards.
Giard questioned whether coming out of a pandemic is the optimal time to implement a new program, in terms of staff bandwidth.
He said the district currently uses a “conglomeration” of different reading programs. But without knowing whether the waiver will be approved, he added $500,000 to his proposed education budget to cover textbooks, supplemental materials and teacher training for a new program.
New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said the district uses part of the Imagine Learning program with English learners but got a quote for transitioning to the core program in the fall. It would be $200,000 for basic materials, not including teacher training and supplemental resources.
Ritchie asked for an extension to file for a waiver and said she is thinking outside the box by making her application a movie, with classroom scenes and teacher interviews.
New London Board of Education Secretary Bryan Doughty questioned, “We don’t have the data coming out of COVID saying what we’re doing is working or not working, and now all of a sudden the state says to do something else?” He shared a mid-year data report showing 25% of kindergartners and 18% of third graders were reading at or above grade level in February, compared to 3% and 9% in October, respectively.
At a February board of education meeting, Ledyard Superintendent Jay Hartling talked about the “arduous waiver process,” said the cost would be about $400,000, and said of the approved programs, “These are not things that are going to excite children, engage children, and imbue in them a love of reading and learning.”
Other educators have cited a New York University report that dubbed three of Connecticut’s seven approved programs “culturally destructive” or “culturally insufficient.”
The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU last fall released a report saying Houghton Mifflin’s Into Reading, McGraw Hill Education’s Wonders, and Savvas Learning Company’s myView reinforced stereotypes and centered Eurocentric ideas.
One district’s experience with a chosen program
Stonington has been using Wonders for several years now, first the 2014 version and now the 2020 version. Administrators expressed their gratitude for already having an approved program.
Elementary curriculum coordinator Kristen Oliverio explained that Stonington had been using “more homegrown” curriculum but wanted a program “with a common language,” and a committee of reading specialists selected Wonders.
“Throughout the years, we realized no program is ever going to be perfect,” she said. The district hired consultants and teachers got training through HILL for Literacy, which helps supplement phonics instruction.
Asked about the NYU study, Oliverio said the district doesn’t use Wonders as the sole means of its diversity, equity and inclusion work.
Kindergarten teacher Nicole Turgeon likes that Wonders is so “mainstreamed and uniformed” and “systematic in showing the difference between a letter and a sound,” but she can also find other materials to fill in gaps. Her lesson Thursday showed the emphasis on phonics, as her 12 kindergartners in unison touched three parts of their arm while sounding out letters in words like ‘bat,’ ‘fit’ and ‘mad.’
In Norwich, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district set up interviews with CSDE’s approved publishers, each showcased their program, and the curriculum council ― made up of teachers and principals ― unanimously selected the Savvas program.
The bill and its implementation
The Right to Read legislation required the Department of Education to establish a Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success and tasked the center with approving at least five reading curriculum programs by July 1, 2022. CSDE didn’t announce the approved programs until late September and the details of the waiver process until later.
The law stated the approved programs must be evidence-based and scientifically-based, and be focused on competency in oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, rapid automatic name or letter fluency, and reading comprehension.
When the proposal was before the Education Committee in March 2021, some people testified strongly in favor, saying it would help improve student literacy and address racial opportunity gaps. But others brought up some of the concerns that are playing out now.
Both Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, noted the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents supported the bill.
Rabinowitz said CAPSS is “in agreement with just about 95% of the act,” but she did not foresee and does “not ascribe to mandated commercial programs, which carry a heavy price tag.”
Conley said she doesn’t have an issue extending the deadline for implementation; what she does have concerns about is that statewide reading scores are going down and were dropping before the pandemic. She said if a program is well-liked but students aren’t reading on grade level, it’s the role of the Department of Education to step in.
Per a request from The Day, a few other local legislators shared their thoughts: Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton; Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London; Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme; and Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington. None were on the Education Committee in 2021, though Howard is on the committee now.
“Superintendents and teachers know what’s best for their students, and how to accomplish that in the most cost effective way; they don’t need the legislature telling them what to do,” Howard said in an email.
Marx said in a statement the feedback she’s heard from local educational leaders about the mandates “is that they may be well-intentioned but poorly implemented.” She said school leaders “are concerned about changing or interrupting their own lesson plans” and “there are simply too many questions left unanswered right now.”
Somers said superintendents have questioned why the state is forcing everyone to pick an approved curriculum instead of focusing on certain districts that are struggling. She said she doesn’t know how this legislation got “hidden in the implementer.”
“That is the vehicle for things that can’t get passed in regular session,” Cheeseman said. She also pushed back against the notion that CSDE had no choice because of the legislation. She said the Connecticut General Assembly is constantly asked to tweak legislation because of unintended consequences and can go into special session.
In response to the legislation, CSDE developed a review process with a rubric, adapted from one in Massachusetts, that the department would use in consultation with the Reading Leadership Implementation Council, also created in the bill.
The process began with an open review period in May 2022, in which districts and publishers could submit materials for review. According to the department of education, the review team consisted of 16 literacy experts, department staff, and educational leaders, and at least two reviewers reviewed each of 25 curriculum programs. The department also considered findings from the nonprofit Edreports and other states.
Recently retired 37-year teacher Lisa Thomas, also chairwoman of the Coventry Town Council, was one of the 12 members of the Reading Leadership Implementation Council.
“What has become very clear is that over-reliance on commercial programs ― some of which gave their creators unquestioned superhero status ― are not the solution to achieving reading success,” Thomas said in written testimony for the bill delaying implementation. She said “classroom teachers are hungry for change that moves away from prescriptive programs.”
Thomas and Rabinowitz, also a member of the council, are among those who instead suggested the formation of a working group under CSDE, to develop a plan for a model curriculum, which districts could adopt or use to guide their own curriculum writing.
Thomas said the cost for Coventry to adopt an approved program is more than $100,000, not including teacher training, while Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget reduces the town’s Education Cost Sharing grant from the state by more than $134,000 in each of the next two years.
“This isn’t sustainable,” she said. “Due to budget constraints, we could very well end up with shelves of lovely new shrink wrapped materials but have insufficient staff to implement the programs.”