Q&A: The latest on Oregon’s race to improve reading

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Feb. 7, 2024 2 p.m.

Every eligible district and charter school applied for new funding under Oregon’s Early Literacy Success Initiative. Now, they await allocations and rules from the state.

Oregon’s effort to overhaul reading instruction is reaching a critical point as educators await allocations and final guidelines from the state.

Last year, Oregon launched its new vision for how to teach the state’s youngest learners to read and write. The Early Literacy Success Initiative reoriented efforts around research-backed approaches to reading, bolstered by the passing of House Bill 3198, which allocated more than $100 million to the cause.

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The initiative has four main funding buckets: one to support K-12 school districts, a birth-through-five literacy fund, grants for community-based groups and funds for tribal organizations.

The idea is to take a holistic approach to literacy, starting with babies as they interact with parents and caregivers, moving through their school experiences in the primary grades and into the children’s lives outside of school.

The effort was pushed by Gov. Tina Kotek and legislators alike. It’s meant to address Oregon’s lagging reading achievement levels, notable disparities among student groups and lax standards around reading curriculum and teacher preparation, as previously reported by OPB. And it matches similar movements nationally to lean on the decades-long body of research commonly referred to as the “science of reading.”

Long term, advocates hope to build a stronger foundation for how schools and caregivers teach some of the most critical skills needed to succeed in life.

But even with financial and political backing, it wasn’t clear if schools would all get on board with the new approach.

Fast forward to 2024, all eligible Oregon school districts and charter schools — nearly 250 applicants in total — have applied for a share of the state’s new grant funding.

Students listen during reading time at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast location, Oct. 26, 2023. The bilingual child care program is part of Multnomah County’s Preschool for All.

Students listen during reading time at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast location, Oct. 26, 2023. The bilingual child care program is part of Multnomah County’s Preschool for All.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The push to make changes quickly is underway. The State Board of Education is finalizing the rules on how to implement the changes at the school level. The board released draft rules toward the end of January. The draft includes a range of proposed regulations, from the curriculum educators can use to specific ratios required for “high-dosage” tutoring. Temporary rules have been used since September as part of the “jumpstart” to get the program up and running in the current biennium.

Meanwhile, a team of reviewers is sifting through grant applications.

The state is working with districts throughout the review process this month to revise plans as needed. Grant agreements are likely to be signed and finalized on a rolling basis as applications are approved, with funding beginning to flow to districts as early as mid-March. Districts will apply for the next round of funding in the spring of 2025.

Many advocates and educators are optimistic about the state’s efforts so far, but they have lingering concerns: will the students with the greatest need get enough resources? Will the rules truly embody best practices? Will the state’s accountability measures actually push schools to improve reading instruction?

OPB spoke with the state’s first Director of Literacy, Angelica Cruz, who began the role last fall, along with Jennifer Patterson, the assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at ODE, to learn more about where the initiative is now and what to expect moving forward.

The following answers summarize responses from Cruz and Patterson.

OPB: Why do you think every eligible district and charter school decided to apply?

Cruz & Patterson: Literacy really matters to educators — it is of utmost importance. And it matters to community members. It matters to policymakers. It’s hard to find someone for whom it doesn’t matter.

It’s something that we really care about committing to collectively. So, first and foremost, it reflects a shared value to link our arms together in support of every child in Oregon developing competence and confidence as a reader and a writer.

Second, we offered districts an opportunity to work on this with strong partners, including literacy advocates, educational service districts, and district charter leaders, to clarify questions about the bill, what’s possible within it, and how they can apply.

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And the third thing is there’s urgency in this moment.

It’s collectively felt. It’s widespread in remote areas of Oregon — rural, small districts — as well as larger urban districts. I think everyone is very clear: we have work to do to improve the literacy experience and the literacy outcomes for our children in Oregon. The pandemic really had an impact on students’ literacy. That’s true in Oregon; that’s true nationally.

OPB: How is Oregon different in its approach?

Cruz & Patterson: We’ve been so fortunate to work with other states and learn from others who have gone first.

There’s a lot of conversation around the work that’s happened in Mississippi and the improvement in their NAEP scores as a result of, really, what’s been a 17-year effort there to improve literacy rates for students.

And what we discovered in Oregon, and what we really felt was important, was … centering around reading research. House Bill 3198 outlines five allowable uses of the funds. And those allowable uses are also strongly correlated with what research supports as being strong levers or strong points of influence for improving literacy outcomes at scale.

OPB: What will happen to districts or schools that have been critiqued for going against the state’s goals in the not-too-distant past?

Cruz & Patterson: Here’s what we know about any kind of effort to improve instructional outcomes: high support has to be coupled with high expectations and high accountability. You will really find that those three pillars are strong guideposts for us as we implement this work alongside districts.

ODE has provided a high level of support, not only in helping to socialize and deepen understanding about the core research that’s in the framework, but we’ve also come out and provided a lot of technical assistance, and we’ll continue to do that as districts apply for the funds and then work toward implementation.

The statute is written with some strong accountability measures in mind. The statute requires that districts complete quarterly reports on their expenditures and their programming to really ensure strong alignment with how they’re spending the dollars, and that those are in alignment with the allowable uses in the legislation.

Additionally, by March, we will have permanent rules as our rulemaking process concludes. And it’s very likely that those rules will have additional accountability measures for districts as they work to implement the changes.

OPB: What will success in the next year look like?

Cruz & Patterson: We are using this as an opportunity for us to get very clear about what improvement looks like on behalf of our children and literacy. So, I would say, we are at a point of really celebrating a moment where we’re all in for literacy in Oregon. I think building on that momentum in the next year, you’re going to see a couple of different things.

You’re going to see a statewide literacy tour in the spring, where we will be going around to different places in different schools in Oregon and taking a look at classrooms and watching kids in real-time reading and writing and talking to teachers about what they’re learning and how they’re getting better.

We’ll be getting student voice and family voice around: How is the Early Literacy Initiative taking root in their classrooms and in their schools?

We’re also going to be asking questions about where teachers are getting stuck. Where did they need more support? Where are our principals getting stuck?

Teaching reading is extraordinarily complex work. And in order to help people get better at that, we need to be responsive to not only where they’re having success, but where they need more help, and then be responsive to that at the state level, in terms of providing more technical assistance or professional learning.

We’re also going to be launching additional professional learning resources. That will be really helpful not only in clarifying what matters most and supporting our multilingual learners but also our students who experience disability and students with dyslexia.

The department is also getting to work with leaders across the state in designing, crafting and authoring an adolescent literacy framework for grades 6-12.

OPB: Are there misconceptions about this work you’d like to correct?

Cruz & Patterson: We can’t underscore this enough: when you think about teaching literacy, it is a comprehensive and complex picture. It’s not anything you can reduce to a single curriculum, to a single professional development. There is no silver bullet for teaching literacy.

We need to stay really committed to honoring a very robust and comprehensive understanding of what teaching literacy really requires.

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