Last year, Ohio lawmakers used the state budget bill to enshrine into law some important early literacy reforms focused on the science of reading. If implemented effectively, these reforms could improve reading achievement in schools across the state. But one of the keys to effective implementation—ensuring that both current and future teachers are well trained in scientifically-based reading instruction—is a lot easier said than done.
That’s especially true in Ohio. According to an NCTQ analysis published last year by Fordham, just nine of twenty-six teacher preparation programs in the state provided adequate coverage of all five components of reading science (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). Even worse, more than half promoted practices that are contrary to research-based methods, like three-cueing (i.e., teaching kids to guess at words).
Fortunately, last year’s budget bill put Ohio on the path toward fixing that. In fact, a second analysis by NCTQ—this one published just last week—indicates that not only is the Buckeye State on the right path, it ranks “significantly above the national average” in five key policy actions. These actions, which were identified by NCTQ as instrumental to ensuring that a state’s teacher workforce can implement and sustain the science of reading over time, were used to evaluate all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Twelve states earned NCTQ’s highest overall rating of “strong,” and Ohio was one of them. Let’s take a look at why.
1. Setting specific, detailed reading standards for teacher preparation
For teacher preparation programs, standards offer clarity around which skills and knowledge should be taught in depth, and what teacher candidates must demonstrate mastery of before they graduate. For states, they provide explicit criteria that can be used to give feedback, either through audits or renewal reviews. And for districts, standards can offer assurance during the hiring process that candidates have been well trained.
NCTQ identified three indicators within this category. The first is a no-brainer, and asks whether a state has specific and detailed standards for elementary preparation programs that cover all five core reading components. The next two are less obvious, but no less important: Do the state’s standards incorporate how to teach struggling readers (including those with dyslexia), as well as English learners? Thanks in large part to its recent legislative changes, Ohio can say yes on all three fronts.
2. Reviewing preparation programs to ensure they teach the science of reading
NCTQ’s indicators in this area include conducting reviews to hold programs accountable for implementing the science of reading, maintaining full state control over which programs are approved and renewed, using multiple sources of evidence to evaluate science of reading implementation, and utilizing literacy experts in program reviews.
Ohio meets expectations in three of the four indicators. It falls short on the last, as the Department of Higher Education—the entity responsible for conducting Ohio’s newly established audits of preparation programs—is not required to include reading specialists or experts in its reviews (though they may do so in practice). Despite this shortcoming, it’s important to recognize just how big of a deal it is that Ohio will soon audit preparation programs to ensure they’re training teacher candidates in reading science. That’s a level of accountability that didn’t exist prior to last year’s legislation, and it will play a crucial role going forward in ensuring lasting change—provided Ohio lawmakers fully fund the effort (more on this later). Also worthy of note is the fact that audits will focus solely on the science of reading—an important distinction, as a more general audit could be too shallow to make a difference. In addition, the Department will be required to publicly release summaries of their findings, and all programs will be reviewed every four years.
3. Adopting a strong elementary reading licensure test
This area examines whether states have a reading licensure test designed to ensure that new teachers understand the science of reading. NCTQ also asks if elementary teacher candidates are required to pass that test and whether states publish pass-rate data (especially first-time pass rates). Taken together, these three indicators can help verify that teacher candidates truly understand scientifically-based reading instruction and identify programs that do an excellent (or lackluster) job of preparing candidates to succeed. Ohio currently checks the first two boxes—the state has a reading licensure test, and candidates are required to pass it—and partially checks the third, as it publishes some pass-rate data. Thanks to last year’s legislation, though, the state will soon be publishing first-time pass-rate data, as well. That change will bring Ohio up to three out of three.
4. Requiring districts to select a high-quality reading curriculum
This is arguably the most important policy action, as using high-quality curricula is a cost-effective reform that can boost student outcomes. Perhaps because of its importance, there are six indicators. The four indicators Ohio met include whether the state requires districts to use core curricula materials from an identified list, provides guidance or evaluation tools to help districts select supplemental materials to support struggling readers, provides guidance and tools for English learners, and has allocated resources to help districts purchase new curricula.
Ohio fell short because, although districts are required to report the curricula they are using, the state does not publish that information on its website or require districts to publish it on theirs. These shortcomings, however, weren’t enough to prevent NCTQ from spotlighting Ohio’s forthcoming list of state-approved high-quality curricula, as well as its allocation of $64 million to help districts purchase materials.
5. Providing professional learning and ongoing support to teachers
This category examines whether states require current elementary teachers to be trained in scientifically-based reading instruction, as well as whether they allocate resources to districts to support implementation and professional learning. Ohio can check off both boxes, as these requirements were key parts of recent legislation. Specifically, the budget allocated up to $6 million in FY 2024 and $12 million in FY 2025 to pay for literacy coaches in public schools with the lowest rates of proficiency. The Department of Education and Workforce is also partnering with Keys to Literacy, an NCTQ recommended professional development provider, to create a course in the science of reading for current teachers. Stipends of $1,200 are available for most teachers who complete the course.
Despite the rave reviews, NCTQ offers several solid recommendations for Ohio to make its policies even stronger, including requiring literacy experts to be part of program reviews and publishing the reading curricula used by each district on the state’s website. But those aren’t the only issues that need to be addressed.
For starters, it’s crucial that the Department of Higher Education conduct thorough, high-quality reviews of teacher preparation programs annually. But early indications are that lawmakers didn’t appropriate nearly enough money for them to do so. If the department can’t afford to ensure these audits are done well, it will be impossible to determine if teacher candidates are being properly trained. When the budget cycle restarts next year, lawmakers should prioritize funding teacher preparation audits.
In addition, there have already been attempts via Senate Bill 168 to water down professional development expectations for teachers regarding students with dyslexia. The Buckeye State has done admirable work to improve how it serves students with dyslexia, and it would be a shame to slide backward so soon. Lawmakers should resist these efforts.
Finally, it’s imperative for Ohio to stay the course. That might seem like a meaningless recommendation given how new these provisions are, but lawmakers have an unfortunate history of failing to follow through on important policy reforms. Ohio leaders deserve plenty of kudos for their efforts last year, but it’s a new year now—and there’s plenty of work to be done.