Public invited to comment on revamped literacy standards for Oregon teacher colleges

Teacher colleges in Oregon may soon need to meet six revamped literacy standards to have their education degree programs approved. 

A literacy council formed eight-months ago by Gov. Tina Kotek released its first round of recommended standards for improving how Oregon colleges prepare future teachers to teach reading and writing.

To comment on the proposed standards, click here. Comments are due by Feb. 20.

The revamped standards include an emphasis on directly and comprehensively teaching kids reading skills based on scientific research about how the brain learns written language, and an emphasis on instruction effective for children with disabilities and for those who are learning English as a second or third language.

The 20-members of the Early Literacy Educator Prep Council that crafted the recommendations include Kotek, heads of state government education agencies, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, professors at four universities, four public school districts and the culture and heritage manager of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. 

If adopted, the standards could help future teachers effectively teach students across Oregon to read and write, and help those who are behind catch up, the council indicated in its report.

The report said that Oregon teacher and administrator candidates must recognize that reading, unlike talking, is not a natural human process but one that must be taught directly based on scientifically proven methods, and that everyone is capable of learning how. 

A focus on instruction based on reading science is a shift from a widespread and popularized reading instructional philosophy called “whole language,” and another more broadly interpreted philosophy called “balanced literacy,” which gained momentum throughout the U.S. during the last few decades. Both philosophies rely, in part, on the belief that reading will come naturally to kids if they’re exposed to good books and taught to gain understanding and meaning from context clues such as pictures. 

three-part investigation by the Capital Chronicle in June found many of the state’s 15 teacher preparation programs were not training future teachers in scientifically-based reading instructional methods or had only recently adopted them. According to a recent analysis of reading instruction at public teacher colleges by the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality, nearly all colleges in Oregon are failing to use reading instructional methods known to be most effective for all kids.

Oregon students have been left to suffer the consequences. About 40% of fourth graders and one-third of eighth graders scored “below basic” on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “nation’s report card.” That means they struggle to read and understand simple words.

Changing course

The Early Literacy Educator Prep Council was established via executive order in May to respond to persistently low reading levels in the state. It was part of a larger early literacy initiative backed by the governor and passed during the summer Legislative session, which includes $145 million in grants to help schools and nonprofits pay for new reading curriculum, tutoring, and teacher training in reading methods proven to boost literacy for all kids.

The revamped literacy standards incorporate reading instruction for students with dyslexia as well as students learning English on top of other languages spoken at home. Julie Esparza Brown, a professor of special education at Portland State University, said teachers need to understand them. 

“What’s clear is we want every teacher – general educators in particular – to be able to understand students with dyslexia, what those characteristics are, so they can start having conversations with parents and schools about any need for more support, and so they can effectively collaborate with reading instructional specialists,” Esparza Brown said.

Other recommended standards include a major emphasis on teaching skills such as phonics and word decoding, ensuring teachers know how to interpret reading assessment data, and that they experience teaching in classrooms, or access live or recorded video, where professional teachers are instructing students using scientific and research-based reading instructional methods. They would also need to observe teachers using these methods to instruct English language learners and students with dyslexia.

Esparza Brown said she expects some professors in education programs across the state will push back on the recommendations.

“It could be surprising to many faculty, depending on when they were trained in literacy,” she said of the recommended standards. “There’s going to need to be some new and needed conversations, and we’ll need funding for some professional development so we’re all speaking the same language,” she said.

The literacy council’s next step is to recommend updates to literacy standards required for teacher licensing in Oregon, which the council will discuss and issue sometime between February and June, according to Kotek’s office. The council’s third and final assignment is to recommend investments and policies to state lawmakers for improving support for educator preparation programs in the state.

Literacy council members

The 20 members of the Early Literacy Educator Prep Council include experts and representatives from schools, the state and a tribe. They are:

Gov. Tina Kotek

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland 

Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook 

Rep. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard

Rep. Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay 

Ronda Fritz, professor, Eastern Oregon University College of Education

Susan Gardner, dean, Oregon State University College of Education

Katie Danielson, professor, University of Portland School of Education

Julie Esparza Brown, professor, Portland State University College of Education

Anita Archer, early literacy expert 

Mikkaka Overstreet, consultant, Education Northwest 

Shahnaz Sahnow, bilingual elementary reading specialist and instructional coach, Corvallis School District 

Julie Ragan, teacher, Lebanon School District 

Heidi Brown, superintendent, Crow-Applegate-Lorane School District 

Jennifer Whitten, principal of Greenway Elementary School, Beaverton School District 

Valerie Switzler, culture and heritage manager, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs 

Melissa Goff, director, Teacher Standards and Practices Commission 

Ben Cannon, director, Higher Education Coordinating Commission

Charlene Williams, director, Oregon Department of Education 

Sara Spencer, director, Educator Advancement Council

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.