Ohio recently passed a historic state budget that includes, among other components, ambitious literacy reforms that require schools to follow the science of reading—an instructional approach that emphasizes phonics for building foundational literacy skills and knowledge-rich curricula to support vocabulary and comprehension. These are much-needed changes, and similar movements are also spreading across the country. But effective implementation of legislative reforms will be a crucial next step. If Ohio leaders—and officials in other locales working to execute science of reading laws—successfully follow through on implementation, these promising literacy reforms will have a much better chance of boosting reading proficiency.
To recap, 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 To support the transition, lawmakers set aside some $170 million to replace outdated curricula and provide professional development for teachers.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 that 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. Recognizing the urgency of collecting these data, ODE, to its credit, sent out the survey this week. The agency should now make certain that schools respond promptly and completely. On the latter count, ODE should ensure that school-level information is obtained, as curricula may differ across schools within a larger district. And, as recommended in this piece, it should also insist on specificity, making sure to collect not only the title of the material, but also publisher and year, as older editions may be of differing quality.
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, as the whole effort could be undermined if state officials—perhaps under lobbying pressure from publishers—include low-quality programs such as Fountas & Pinnell’s Classroom, Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study, or Reading Recovery. Timeliness is also key, as schools need to know this year which materials have the green light. The good news is that EdReports, a well-regarded national organization, has conducted detailed evaluations of reading curricula that Ohio policymakers can rely on. States such as Colorado, Louisiana, and Massachusetts have also developed solid lists of high-quality materials.
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. (In this event, it should also request additional funding from the legislature.) One final issue that ODE may need to iron out is whether to provide a per-pupil subsidy up front or reimburse districts after purchase. A per-pupil amount might be more sensible, as reimbursement could end up incentivizing unduly expensive purchases.
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. To build the knowledge and skills of Ohio’s teaching force, the budget bill sets aside $86 million over the biennium to pay teacher stipends for completing PD. Implementation details are left to ODE, so the agency will need to sort out several issues:
- 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—perhaps exempting only those who have taken one of the state-approved PD courses before. One aim of the initiative is to get Ohio educators on the same page around effective methods, and a more inclusive statewide PD initiative would better achieve that goal.
- Who may provide PD: The bill requires ODE to identify vendors that provide PD to educators. Much like the vetting of instructional materials, ODE should carefully screen prospective vendors. It might be wise to approve just a handful of vendors—Colorado approves a half-dozen, for example—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 not all, of them. If it doesn’t, it runs the risk of 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 report schools’ reading curricula on an ongoing basis. 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 à la Colorado’s curriculum transparency dashboard. This tool would provide communities a check on whether their local schools are following state law, and it would clearly flag any obvious cases of non-compliance. It may also allow communities and parents to advocate for changes if their schools are using programs that, while state-approved, are not up to their exacting standards. Lastly, public reporting could allow for analyses that link schools’ reading performance to their curricula selections, potentially shedding light on which are associated with the strongest learning gains.
7. Strictly enforce state literacy requirements. State officials shouldn’t turn a blind eye if schools are ignoring state law. As agencies in other states have done, ODE should step in and take corrective action if a district or school is using disapproved programs. The agency may also need to periodically conduct curricula reviews of schools (perhaps randomly selecting a small percentage each year) to verify implementation of high-quality curricula. All students deserve to learn via effective reading methods, and ODE should honor the intent of the literacy law through strong enforcement.
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Led by Governor DeWine, the state budget bill greatly improves Ohio’s early literacy laws by requiring schools to follow the science of reading. For the effort to succeed and benefit Ohio students, implementation will be key. As this piece indicates, there’s a lot on the plate of state officials. But if Ohio can get the details right and rigorously implement its new policies, the payoff will be great: a better educated, more literate next generation of Ohioans.
 It’s also possible that fewer schools than expected will need to change curricula, allowing the $64 million set-aside to go further. If that’s the case, the state might consider creating another tier of instructional materials—“exceptionally high-quality”—and subsidize schools that seek to upgrade from a state-approved curricula to a top-tier curricula.
 All teachers in grades K–5; English teachers in grades 6–12; and intervention specialists, English learner teachers, reading specialists, and instructional coaches in grades pre-K–12 are eligible for $1,200 stipends upon course completion. Grades 6–12 teachers in other subjects (e.g., math or science) are eligible for $400 stipends. Though required to take PD, administrators are not eligible for a stipend.
 Provided he or she is not on a state-required reading improvement and monitoring plan.