Opinion: Colorado poised to do better in helping kids learn to read

Evidence-based instruction, accountability are key parts of new reading effort

by Katy Anthes, Colorado Commissioner of Education

(Originally published October 10, 2019, by The Denver Post)

“Captain Underpants,” and “Ramona the Pest,” can teach our kids a lot about imagination, heroism and how to create trouble without even trying.

These adorable characters come alive in chapter books that every student in Colorado should be able to enjoy by the end of third grade. Study after study shows those children who can’t read at grade level by then will encounter challenges greater than Captain Underpants and Ramona ever faced.

After third grade, the focus in Colorado classrooms shifts from learning to read to using reading skills to learn. Students discover the wonders of science, lessons from history and all other subject areas, including those story problems that, albeit vexing, bring relevance to math!

Students who cannot read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and high school dropouts make up 75 percent of citizens receiving food stamps and 90 percent of the Americans on welfare, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In 2012, Colorado policymakers made reading by third grade a top priority with the passage of the Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act – known as the READ Act. The law required districts to test reading abilities of kindergarten through third-graders, identify those with significant reading deficiencies and develop individualized reading plans for those who struggle the most.

We saw some improvements after six years of implementation, but unfortunately our effort to raise reading levels for our youngest students wasn’t getting us where we needed to be, with only a 2 percentage point increase in third-graders who meet or exceed expectations on our state assessment for reading and writing. In addition, students identified with the most serious reading challenges were not making enough progress to reach grade-level proficiency.

Though outcomes weren’t what we had hoped, we adults learned a lot during the first six years of the READ Act. We learned more teacher training in evidence-based reading instruction is needed to raise student achievement. Some of our greatest teachers haven’t received the latest training in scientifically based methods for teaching reading, and we need to support their learning in this area.

During this year’s legislative session, one of the most important bills passed was a collaborative effort between the State Board of Education, Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly, and the Governor’s Office to dramatically improve the READ Act.

The bipartisan bill refocused the law to ensure kindergarten through third-grade teachers have the scientifically based training they need to effectively teach reading. It also asks school districts to keep an account of how they test and teach reading, and it requires students with the most significant reading deficiencies to receive extra reading instruction throughout the day. Moreover, the legislation requires the state to hire an independent evaluator to analyze how schools spend the READ Act money and whether students with the most significant delays are making progress.

The intent is what we all hope for – to improve reading for our youngest students.

As the famous abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Reading opens a myriad of possibilities for all children and brings hope and opportunity to students of all income levels and backgrounds. One of our top goals at the Colorado Department of Education is to support districts and schools as they implement the READ Act so ALL students can read at grade level by the time they finish the third grade.

As we endeavor to increase achievement for every student, especially our historically underserved students – our minority students, English learners, foster youth, students with disabilities and other groups – I know in my heart that it all starts with reading.

As adults, we have but one mission in life and that is to provide a better future for our children. I can think of no better way to accomplish that goal than to give our students the gift of reading. We have put the pieces in place to do just that. We will teach our children how to read, we will hold ourselves accountable and we will give them a future filled with possibilities.

By working together – schools, libraries, businesses, community centers, state and local governments – we can ensure that all of our young students can learn from books like, “Words Set Me Free,” about Frederick Douglass, and we can provide all students with opportunities to build and thrive in a better Colorado.