Part 1:

Many Oregon kids still struggle to read because they are taught using ineffective methods

The Capital Chronicle determined that Oregon has spent more than $250 million in the past 25 years to try and improve reading instruction in schools. But that money has failed to help more than a generation of students. Over the last 25 years, nearly two in five Oregon fourth graders and one in five eighth graders have scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. That means they struggle to read and understand simple words. 

Students in Ronda Fritz’s literacy course at Eastern Oregon University learn about the 44 sounds letter in the English alphabet that they’ll need to teach kids for them to decode words. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Part 2:

Oregon’s 15 educator preparation programs offer vastly different reading instruction methods to future teachers, and some teach flawed methods

The nearly 10,000 elementary school teachers in Oregon learned different methods for teaching reading depending on where they went to college. Some were taught methods now known to be detrimental to helping kids read in the long run, and many did not receive the intensive instruction needed to teach kids the rules of written language. Today, Oregon’s 550,000 students have been left to contend with these instructional differences. 

Universities are facing mounting pressure from alumni, parents, politicians and school districts in the last few years to ensure they graduate teachers knowledgeable in methods of reading instruction proven to work for all kids. At a number of schools around the state, change is underway among faculty. But others have doubled down on flawed methods. According to a recent analysis of reading instruction at public teacher colleges by the National Council on Teacher Quality, nearly all in Oregon are failing.

Students are taught how to sound out letters during a phonics lesson at Ferguson Elementary School in Klamath Falls on April 7, 2023. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Part 3:

With districts, not the state, responsible for improving the teaching of reading, some students will be left behind

Oregon’s strong tradition of “local control” means teachers, administrators and locally elected school board members decide what curricula to use and students are stuck with their choices. 

The Oregon Department of Education provides districts a list of 15 approved curricula, but doesn’t ban schools from choosing teaching materials not on the list. Because the education department doesn’t track what curricula schools use, and doesn’t intervene if reading proficiency declines or doesn’t improve, it’s up to individual districts and their school boards to change. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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 Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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.