‘Right to Read’ advocates defend curriculum mandates
Groton parent Adrian Johnson recalls that when his three kids were learning to read, they brought home books with instructions to comprehend a word: look at the first letter, look at the picture, and think about what would make sense in the context of the sentence.
Two of his three kids ― now in 12th, 9th and 7th grade ― are dyslexic, and he is concerned about school districts being allowed to use a guessing approach.
“Some children may be taught a program that is not appropriate for their learning style, and others will actually be hindered in future learning with counterproductive reading habits that are very difficult to correct later on,” he said in an email.
The method Johnson described is called three-cueing, an approach decried by advocates of the “science of reading” ― a decades-long body of research that says children need to be explicitly taught to sound out words.
Connecticut is among the red and blue states alike requiring districts to adopt approved curriculum that adheres to the science of reading, but dozens of districts in Connecticut are looking for waivers to keep their current approaches.
“We know that reading is not natural for children,” said Melissa K. Wlodarczyk Hickey, director of the state’s Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success and a former second-grade teacher. “The speaking and the listening, those stories have been around for a lot longer than the written page has been, so our brains have to learn how to read versus just sitting there and absorbing.”
Asked if Groton still uses three-cueing, Superintendent Susan Austin said they’re “shifting the balance,” with a focus on the science of reading. Groton is among many districts in Connecticut and nationwide that use the controversial Units of Study from Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.
Calkins had pushed cueing in her Units of Study, published by Heinemann. But she released a major update last fall, which drops cueing and includes structured phonics lessons.
“All of us are imperfect. The last two or three years, what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational,” Calkins told The New York Times last May. One of the people she credited for her shifting views was education journalist Emily Hanford, whose podcast series Sold a Story heightened awareness over shortcomings in how kids are taught to read.
It remains to be seen whether the state department of education, which rejected Units of Study before the update, will allow school districts to use the new curriculum.
The “Right to Read” legislation Connecticut passed in 2021 established the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success within CSDE and tasked it with approving at least five K-3 reading programs, with a mandate for districts to implement one starting July 1, 2023. The center has approved seven.
Last week, The Day reported on the outcry from superintendents over the unfunded mandate, being forced to choose a commercial program, and an arduous waiver process for those seeking to stick with their own curriculum.
“It’s not one thing or the other,” Austin said Friday, rejecting a one size fits all approach. “This great debate is really about: Should a program be mandated to every district in the state of Connecticut, or should it be decided by the educators and the boards of ed what works best for the children?”
Hickey said a preliminary glance of waiver applications showed most waiver-seeking districts want to continue using the Teachers College program along with Fundations and Heggerty, two phonics-based programs.
According to a spreadsheet CSDE provided Tuesday, the state has received waiver requests from 86 of the state’s 180 local and regional boards of education, and another three ― including New London and Montville ― have asked for an extension to submit an application. The deadline was Feb. 28.
Hickey said in a voluntary survey in September, 19 districts indicated intent to implement one of the approved programs by the deadline and 67 districts asked for a one-year extension on implementation, to 2024. But this has been a moving target, as some have changed their minds.
Hickey said the mandate doesn’t mean districts have to stop using supplemental materials.
“It is change, and change is hard,” Hickey said. “I really am hoping that districts are taking this opportunity to really examine: What are they doing for all of their kids? Not just the majority, but all of their kids, really getting down into who is needing assistance and what we can be doing for them differently.”
For now, the literacy center is just her. Hickey said Tuesday she has posted five positions and gotten a lot of applications, but she doesn’t know when interviews will happen. She also said the department of education is engaging Public Consulting Group to help review the waivers, but the contract hasn’t been finalized yet.
In an email Thursday, Austin defended Groton’s use of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which she called a “highly regarded university based and scientifically research based reading and writing project that is used by many districts across the state and nation.”
She shared a January 2021 study from the American Institutes for Research that found schools in New York City and Greater Atlanta saw statistically significant increases in English language arts scores starting in the second year of TCRWP implementation, compared to similar schools.
In a January 2020 report from Student Achievement Partners, literary expert reviewers said the Units of Study from TCRWP “is organized above all on the value of loving to read” but “would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.” The curriculum review nonprofit EdReports.org in 2018 gave Units of Study poor marks.
The introduction to Groton’s waiver application said the district has also gotten training in Fundations, the Orton-Gillingham approach to help struggling readers, and Heggerty, a phonemic awareness program. Opponents of Teachers College support these programs.
CSDE allowed districts and publishers to submit materials for review in May, and in June and July, at least two reviewers analyzed each of the 53 submissions. These covered 25 programs.
In a slide deck from a Connecticut Association of Boards of Education webinar on Feb. 7, the department explained why different submissions didn’t meet expectations.
It explained of TCRWP’s Units of Study, “Evidence indicates low quality across all indicators and criterion. Materials are not cohesive and would not be of benefit to Connecticut teachers and students. Materials focus on students using the three-cueing system for solving unknown words rather than focusing on students utilizing scientifically validated, evidence-based literacy strategies.”
Asked whether CSDE would consider adding the revised Units of Study to its approved list, Hickey said she would have to see if the newest Heinemann materials were submitted in the waiver process.
Austin said Calkins “really re-created with the team an entire new Units of Study that have the phonics transfer into reading and writing, and so it’s a whole new look, it’s a whole new ballgame, so they cannot go by the past submission.”
Hickey said the review team didn’t approve Fundations and Heggerty because they’re supplemental rather than a core model.
“I think it’s very challenging for educators to look back at 20 or 30 years of instruction or training that they have received and say, ‘This didn’t work for a lot of kids,’” said Amy Dowell, executive director of the nonprofit Education Reform Now CT and a member of the state’s Right to Read Coalition. She also pushed back against the rejection of commercial programs, saying TCRWP materials also come in a box.
She doesn’t subscribe to the idea that children of different backgrounds learn to read differently said said, “We know what’s effective, and we should be doing it in every classroom.”
While high-performing districts may tout test scores as an indicator their methods are working, Dowell said sometimes wealthier districts “are kind of turning a blind eye to the fact that they have students in their district who are getting private tutoring.”
Fairfield resident Lauren Field, a 25-year learning and reading specialist with a master’s degree in learning disabilities, used to teach in elementary schools but has spent the past 13 years or so just doing private tutoring.
Field said the kids she sees have been using Calkin’s “workshop model,” which involves a lot of independent reading for kids she said can’t actually read yet. She said most of the kids she sees have poor phonological awareness and trouble segmenting words.
The new state-mandated programs
The seven programs the state approved are: Reading Company’s ARC Core, Amplify Education’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Into Reading, Imagine Learning’s EL Education, McGraw Hill Education’s Wonders, Open Up Resources’ EL Education, and Savvas Learning Company’s myView Literacy (2020).
Hickey explained that in selecting these programs, the state looked at data from other states, such as Massachusetts and Colorado, and from EdReports.org.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education rates programs through a project called CURATE, which convenes “panels of Massachusetts teachers to review and rate evidence on the quality and alignment of specific curricular materials.”
CSDE also contracted with Hanover Research to learn more about implementation of programs aligned with the science of reading in other school districts across the country.
This January, Hanover Research conducted nine interviews with language arts experts from six districts in South Carolina, California, Washington, North Carolina, Indiana and Massachusetts.
“Resistance to change is the number one challenge cited by experts,” the report stated. “Participants note that teachers who have become accustomed to utilizing popular approaches such as Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy are disconcerted by the shift to Science of Reading-aligned programs, which they perceive as less intuitive and more rigorous.”
But it added that experts said “teachers’ resistance is often overcome when they observe academic growth in their students.”
Education Week reported last July that 29 states had passed laws since 2013 requiring districts use evidence-based approaches to teaching kids how to read. And these states are both Democrat- and Republican-led.
The 74 reported last month that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has proposed a bill that would require districts to choose from a state list of phonics-based materials and ban the use of “three cueing” lessons. And Minnesota Republicans recently proposed establishing a special revenue fund to help districts pay for materials aligned to the science of reading.
Here in Connecticut, some districts are already getting started. New Haven Public Schools, for example, started pilots of myView Literacy and Into Reading in January.
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