To start the year off on an upbeat note, Colorado’s muscular effort to improve K–3 reading curriculum finally appears to be paying off. One of twenty states that passed or recently considered measures related to the science of reading, the Centennial State began cracking down on how its teacher preparation programs cover early literacy. It is now in the process of requiring teachers to demonstrate more in-depth knowledge about reading pedagogy as well as tightening the reins on which reading programs may be used by districts. Last year, barely two in five of the state’s many local districts used reading curricula from the state’s list of approved programs. That has already risen to 63 percent.
The encouraging news can be traced back to Colorado’s READ Act, a major law enacted ten years ago requiring districts to help struggling readers in the early grades. But laws are blunt instruments, particularly when it comes to improving classroom practice, and the READ Act was no exception. Frustrated by the slow rate of progress, lawmakers passed an update to the statute in 2019, which spurred the state to take a more assertive role in compelling districts to pick from the list of state-approved curricula. Notably, Colorado’s four largest districts—Denver, Jefferson County, Douglas County, and Cherry Creek—have all recently publicized plans to adopt new elementary reading programs that adhere to reading science.
The state’s department of education sent out dozens of letters last fall notifying districts that plans for complying with the curriculum requirement must be submitted later this month. Those that don’t risk having their accreditation rating lowered—a toothless consequence by itself but one that could lead to greater sanctions down the road. Colorado districts have long enjoyed wide latitude on their curriculum choices—it’s a “local control” state, after all—so it’s not surprising that some districts have pushed back by playing games or disregarding the state’s directives. But in a foreshadowing of what may be to come, the state’s fifth largest district, Aurora Public Schools, made an abrupt about-face in December after arguing for months that the state’s rules didn’t apply to it. What’s important to understand here is how and why Colorado’s policy is getting results. Other states may have similar laws on the books, but they haven’t yet seen this kind of response. So what’s the secret? Four things come to mind.