Amid growing concern about how schools teach children to read, a group of Colorado parents want to make it easier for the public to know which literacy curriculum their local schools use.
Proposed legislation, awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee, would require districts to post online the reading curriculum used at each school, as well as how many children are struggling to read versus reading at grade level, and how the school is spending additional state money provided to help students who are reading significantly below grade level.
Just 40% of Colorado students read at grade level, a percentage that has barely budged in recent years. Advocates and policymakers increasingly are scrutinizing the way reading is taught. Many Colorado schools use what’s known as a “balanced literacy” approach that critics say is not supported by cognitive science on how children learn basic literacy skills. In particular, they say some of the reading strategies it promotes impede the development of good decoding skills.
Curriculum matters because it shapes how teachers approach a subject. Colorado’s constitution prevents the state from dictating which curriculum districts adopt, and many districts don’t mandate a specific curriculum for all their schools, either. That means schools in the state are using vastly different approaches to teach students to read.
This is why advocates say parents need information about what’s being taught in schools so they can make informed decisions.
“Easy access to that information would have changed my options earlier,” said Lindsay Drakos, a member of COKID, a group of parents of children with dyslexia who are pushing for policy changes. “I could have reacted more quickly.”
By the time her older daughter was diagnosed in fifth grade, Drakos already had concerns about her younger child then in kindergarten. It would be months before she learned through word of mouth that a nearby school used structured literacy, an approach that includes explicit phonics instruction and that is particularly helpful for dyslexic students.
The information that the bill asks districts to post online is information that districts will have to start submitting to the Colorado Department of Education, under recent legislation that updates a law requiring schools to identify and offer assistance to students with the greatest reading challenges. The law also requires early elementary teachers to get more training.
The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents and other district leaders, opposes the new requirements. Executive Director Lisa Escárcega, who is a candidate for the State Board of Education, said ongoing website maintenance would be a burden to districts, and the Colorado Department of Education could make the information available in a single place.
“We don’t understand the necessity for the bill,” she said. “All this information they’re asking for is collected by the Department of Ed, so why wouldn’t the Department of Ed put it all in one place?”
While last year’s legislation requires districts to do more reporting, it doesn’t actually require the education department to publish that information. A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education said the agency is in the process of updating its school data dashboard and probably will include some additional reading information in the future. People will also be able to find information about curriculum in each school’s unified improvement plan, a long, dense document that gets stored on the department’s website.
Drakos said parents are far more likely to look at their district website than at a state agency they might not know exists.
Advocates for more transparency say they’ve also been told that if they have questions about curriculum, they should just ask. But finding out what curriculum schools use to teach reading isn’t easy. Drakos said she recently waited 18 days to hear back from the Cherry Creek district about its literacy curriculum. On school tours, she said, parents often get condescending answers when they ask about how reading is taught.
Chalkbeat submitted public records requests asking dozens of Colorado districts to provide the names of their core literacy curriculum — a comprehensive curriculum meant to guide instruction for all students in a classroom — used in kindergarten to third grade. While many districts provided concise lists right away, others said they had no documents containing the information or that they would charge a fee to compile the list.
Some provided long lists that failed to distinguish between core reading curriculum and other kinds of curriculum, such as programs aimed at struggling students.
Lewis-Palmer, a 6,800-student district near Colorado Springs, initially provided a list showing 14 core curriculums in use at its five elementary schools. After further questions from Chalkbeat, district officials pared down the list to three items.
The Boulder school district initially said Chalkbeat’s request involved “such a large volume of records” that it would have to charge $90 for the four hours of staff time that it would take to get an answer. Officials later agreed to provide the records for free.
Denver initially provided a list showing two district-supported reading curriculums and many other curriculums that were potentially in use, too. Saying they had no document tracking which curriculums were in use at which schools, officials asked for at least $270 to poll elementary schools before later discovering the information in a spreadsheet that they provided for free.
The Douglas County school district, which serves 65,000 students southeast of Denver, already posts all approved curriculums and textbooks on its website, but it’s not clear which are in active use at which schools. Marlena Gross-Taylor, the district’s chief academic officer, said she is determining which schools use which curriculum, and whether they align with state and district standards as part of a larger strategic plan.
“That’s what we have inherited as a district,” she said of the curriculum list.
Morgan Polikoff, a researcher at the University of Southern California, said, “In general, there’s very good reason to believe that curriculum materials matter for teacher instruction and for student outcomes.”
But he doubts a law requiring districts to publicly post their curriculum will have much impact or prove useful to most parents.
California has a law requiring curriculum disclosure, and when Polikoff downloaded some of that data for a research project, he found the list “close to unusable.” It was long and messy, sometimes with incomplete curriculum names or just publishers listed. He also said even if curriculum names are reported, they may not be used faithfully in classrooms.
Instead of mandating public reporting of curriculum materials, Polikoff believes states should select acceptable curriculums. But in Colorado, state education officials cannot tell schools what to use. The department does maintain a list of curriculums that meet its standards. That list is currently under review.
At the same time, parents have greater ability to choose their children’s school here than in some states. In that context, advocates said curriculum disclosure is an important first step.
“It gives you something to Google. It gives you something to look on CDE’s website and see if it’s approved. It gives parents a starting point,” said Karin Johnson, a member of COKID. “It’s like truth in advertising and being an informed consumer on behalf of your children. Reading is their first job.”