Gov. Tina Kotek kicked off her first term this year with an especially big goal – to revamp the way Oregon teaches children to read and write.
Less than half of Oregon students can read and write at their grade level. This has a substantial impact on the students individually and on society.
Kotek is urging lawmakers to approve plans to change Oregon’s approach to literacy education.
House Bill 3454 would award grants to improve early literacy in schools and communities across the state, and House Bill 3198 would establish the Early Literacy Success Initiative. The initiative would primarily provide coaching, materials and training to educators to improve literacy education before third grade and create literacy-focused tutoring and summer school programs.
Kotek and Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, who spoke to the state House education committee Monday for an informational hearing, want the proposals merged into one cohesive package.
The package would launch a multi-year effort aimed at helping parents, teachers and community groups better serve students. They want to increase early literacy for students in prekindergarten through third grade so students can read at grade level by the end of third grade, or for students who are English language learners, by the end of the fourth grade.
They also want to reduce literacy and graduation disparities and increase the state’s overall graduation rate through these efforts. Oregon’s four-year high school graduation rate for the 2021-22 school year was 81.3%.
“It’s clear we have a problem in Oregon,” Kotek told the committee. “This problem didn’t arrive overnight, and we are not going to solve it overnight.”
The ability to read and write proficiently is vital, but Oregon is failing significantly.
Less than 40% of Oregon third-graders in 2021-22 met the state standards when tested in English Language Arts. That number is even lower for historically marginalized students, dropping, for example, to 23% for students in foster care, 21% for Black or Latino students, 20% for students with disabilities and 8% for English language learners.
As children learn to read, they build on skills and strategies. They learn “phonemic awareness,” which the Oregon Department of Education described as the ability to manipulate individual sounds in spoken words, as well as “phonics,” which is when we correspond sounds and spellings with syllable patterns to read written words.
They learn fluency and decoding, vocabulary and reading comprehension, and more.
“Teaching reading is very complex,” said Sarah Pope, executive director of the nonprofit STAND for Children, in her testimony to the committee. “Some have even likened it to neurosurgery.”
Though reading and writing skills are measured throughout K-12 education, results in third grade – the first time students are tested by the state – are an important indicator of future success.
Not only is it the time when students stop “learning to read” and start “reading to learn,” as previously explained by Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Abel Ortiz, but also researchers have also found that students who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma.
This makes them less likely to be gainfully employed, and more likely to rely on public welfare or become incarcerated.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, full-time workers with a high school degree earn about 24% more than those without one, and research shows students who do not complete high school are more likely to experience poor health and premature death.
Pope said the proposal could “quite honestly change people’s lives.”
Early literacy package
Kotek and Kropf, along with agency officials and advocates who also supported the early learning plan in testimony, want to focus on helping teachers, families and community organizations in addition to the students themselves.
“We are often quick to identify and label individual kids as ‘struggling.’ But the incredibly high number of kids not reading at grade level tells us we need to take a more critical look at how we are teaching literacy,” Kropf said in his testimony.
“Our educators do amazing work, oftentimes under very difficult circumstances,” he added. “This legislation is about giving our educators the training, support and resources they need and want to best help our kids learn to read.”
Part of Kotek’s plan is to support parents as their children’s first teachers. Knowing children develop communication skills from birth, Gabriela Hernandez-Peden, program director of the Spanish-language preschool program Juntos Aprendemos in Central Oregon, told lawmakers, “Education starts five years before they actually end up in the school system.”
Kotek also wants to train educators across the state to use “evidence-based” instruction once the students enter school. This typically refers to a large body of research known as “the science of reading,” which is about how the brain learns to read and write, and what instruction is most effective. Literacy advocates have argued before that school curricula don’t always come from a scientific foundation or that educators are not always properly trained to teach them.
Kotek said it’s important the state provides teachers with ongoing, high-quality, culturally relevant coaching to help them improve, and so they can create school-wide systems to sustain those changes.
“We owe it to educators to prepare and support them for all of what we ask of them,” she said.
The other aspect of the proposal would lead the state to create summer programs that focus on early reading and writing skills in ways that relate to students’ interests and minimize the perception of summer school as punishment. Kotek said “high-dosage tutoring” should also be available for students who need extra support.
Though the education committee members generally indicated their support for improving the state’s literacy education, Rep. Emily McIntire, R-Eagle Point, expressed concerns over regulating the initiative and the cost. Rep. Tracy Cramer, R-Woodburn, questioned whether the proposal could change teaching in schools that are performing well. And the committee’s vice chair Rep. Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay, said he wanted to ensure there was enough money to pay for it. The state, he said, has a history of requiring more from schools but underfunding them.
Kotek’s staff told the Capital Chronicle her goal is to have a public hearing in the next few weeks when the package is finalized. Bills need to have a work session for a vote scheduled by March 17 to move ahead in the legislative process, but budget bills and rules’ proposals are exempt from that deadline.
“As we learn from other states about what works,” Kotek told the committee, “we must recognize that building and implementing an intentional, thoughtfully designed and comprehensive strategy will take more than one bill, budget line or legislative session.”
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 [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.
Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project.