How Ohio can implement science of reading

Carrying out Ohio’s ambitious literacy reforms spelled out in the newly adopted state budget legislation will be a heavy lift.

The legislation requires Ohio districts and charter schools to adopt curricula that aligns to the science of reading starting in fall 2024.

Backed by a large body of research, this approach emphasizes explicit and systematic phonics instruction, as well as knowledge-rich curricula that builds vocabulary and comprehension.

To support the transition, lawmakers set aside some $170 million to replace outdated curricula and provide professional development for teachers. The overarching goal is to ensure all children are taught to read via proven methods by well-trained teachers, ultimately leading to stronger reading proficiency statewide.

Under the new policy, schools that have previously embraced popular but debunked approaches such as “three-cueing” or “balanced literacy” will need to change course. Doing so is crucial, but it could also invite pushback from those wedded to the status quo. Some schools may openly defy state requirements.

More likely, however, resisters will seek to undermine state policy in subtler ways, such as claiming to follow scientifically based instruction but continuing to use disproven methods behind closed doors.

If state leaders aren’t attentive and hard-nosed about implementation, Ohio’s promising literacy efforts could turn into mush. How can they ensure rigorous implementation? Let’s take a look at seven ways.

1. Ensure a complete and thorough system-wide survey of curricula materials. While weak curricula are assuredly in use across Ohio, there is no systemic data on how many schools use them.

This leaves us uncertain about the heft of the implementation.

It’s going to be much heavier lift if three-quarters of Ohio schools are using disproven methods than if only half of schools are doing so.

Fortunately, the budget bill requires the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to field a reading curricula survey, with districts and charters required to respond. ODE should ensure that school-level information is obtained, as curricula may differ across schools within a larger district.

2. Keep the bad stuff off the high-quality instructional materials lists. The budget bill tasks ODE with creating two lists of high-quality instructional materials: one for core curricula and the other for intervention programs.

All districts and charter schools must select curricula and programs from these state-approved lists (with one exception, discussed in #5 below).

Curating carefully vetted lists of materials is a crucial implementation step.

Timeliness also is key, as schools need to know this year which materials have the green light.

EdReports, a well-regarded national organization, has conducted detailed evaluations of reading curricula that Ohio policymakers can rely on.

3. Smartly allocate instructional materials funding. Lawmakers set aside $64 million to subsidize schools’ purchase of high-quality materials.

These funds are critical, but the bill doesn’t provide any direction to ODE about how to allot them.

Moreover, while the overall set-aside is significant, it may not cover curricula upgrades in all Ohio schools.

What this means is that ODE will likely need to develop an allocation method that prioritizes funds.

At the front of the line should be the districts and charters that absolutely need to change curricula because their current ones do not make the state-approved lists.

If there is a sufficiently large number of schools that must change curricula, ODE may need to further prioritize dollars, perhaps by providing subsidies to higher-poverty schools first.

One final issue is whether to provide a per-pupil subsidy up front or reimburse districts after purchase.

4. Bolster teacher professional development (PD) requirements. Retraining teachers who are accustomed to using debunked teaching methods is essential to the science of reading effort, as they’ll be the ones shifting to a different approach and using the new materials.

The budget bill sets aside $86 million over the biennium to pay teacher stipends for PD. Implementation details are left to ODE, so the agency will need to sort out several issues like the ones that follow.

Who must participate: The bill requires all administrators and teachers, regardless of grade or subject, to complete a whole “course” in the science of reading. But it also provides an exemption to those who have “previously completed similar training, as determined by the Department.”

Thus, ODE will need to set criteria for the exemption, and it should set a high bar to qualify.

Who may provide PD: The bill requires ODE to identify vendors that provide PD to educators. Much like vetting instructional materials, ODE should carefully screen prospective vendors.

It might be wise to approve just a handful of vendors rather than a long list of variable quality.

What counts as “course completion”: Teacher PD is notorious for being more of a box-checking activity than rigorous, skills-building work.

ODE should put some meat on the “completion” bones and require PD vendors — as a condition of approval–to include an end-of-course assessment that educators must pass to complete the course and receive their stipend.

If an educator falls short, he or she should have an opportunity for a retake; failing that, they should have to redo the course.

5. Scrutinize waiver requests. While the legislation requires schools to use state-approved curricula and includes an explicit proscription on “three-cueing,” it also includes a loophole that could allow a school to use three-cueing in two circumstances: (a) if it receives a waiver from ODE to use it for a particular student or (b) if a student’s IEP calls for the use of this method.

To guard against abuse, ODE should carefully review waiver requests and likely reject most.

If it doesn’t, it risks becoming a rubber stamp that allows schools to circumvent the state’s science of reading requirements.

ODE should also publicly report the number of waiver requests from each district and school, as well as how many were approved. The sunlight will also provide another safeguard against abuse.

6. Publicly and regularly report schools’ reading curricula. Beyond the survey mentioned above, Ohio’s new literacy laws require districts and charter schools to report core reading curricula and intervention programs on an ongoing, annual basis to ODE.

While the legislation doesn’t explicitly require public reporting after data are sent to ODE, the agency can and should make them public.

This tool would provide communities a check on whether their local schools are following state law, and it would flag obvious cases of noncompliance.

It may also allow communities and parents to advocate for changes if their schools are using programs not up to their exacting standards.

Public reporting could allow analyses linking schools’ reading performance to curricula selections, shedding light on the strongest learning gains.

7. Strictly enforce state literacy requirements. State officials shouldn’t turn a blind eye if schools are ignoring state law. ODE should take corrective action if a school uses disapproved programs.

The agency also might need to periodically conduct curricula reviews of schools to verify implementation of high-quality curricula.


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