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Gov. Kotek orders new council to investigate quality of reading instruction at Oregon teacher colleges

Ronda Fritz teaches an early literacy course at Eastern Oregon University Feb. 20, 2023.
Alex Baumhardt
Oregon Capital Chronicle
Ronda Fritz teaches an early literacy course at Eastern Oregon University Feb. 20, 2023.

The group will recommend licensing updates to ensure newly-minted educators understand decades of best practices and reading science.

Gov. Tina Kotek will appoint a new council to investigate how well Oregon’s 15 teacher colleges prepare graduates to teach kids to read and write.

It comes in response to more than a decade of low-reading and writing proficiency among Oregon students as measured by state and national assessments, and in light of growing pressure on teacher colleges nationwide from parents, alumni and school administrators to graduate teachers knowledgeable in methods of reading instruction proven to work for all kids.

Kotek announced the Early Literacy Educator Preparation Council via executive order Thursday. She’ll appoint 20 teachers, elementary school leaders, college professors, literacy experts and senators and representatives from both parties to the council this summer, according to a news release.

By early next year, the group will submit recommendations for updating teacher licensing requirements to ensure colleges graduate teachers with a deep understanding of language and literacy skills and how to teach them. The Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which licenses teachers in Oregon, will have until the end of June next year to adopt new requirements for earning a license and how the universities will show compliance in their reading methods and literacy instruction courses.

“Let’s decide what our teacher preparation programs need to have, and then we will make it a requirement of licensure,” Kotek told the Capital Chronicle.

In her campaign, she promised to tackle low reading proficiency among students by overhauling reading instruction in Oregon schools to reflect decades of research and science that shows how the brain most effectively learns to read and write. Kotek has also backed a $140 million proposal called the Early Literacy Success Initiative, which would create a grant program to help school districts and community groups pay for student tutoring, for reading specialists, and teacher retraining and curricula rooted in “the science of reading.”

A large body of cognitive and neuroscience research — often referred to as “the science of reading” — shows that the human brain does not learn to read or write naturally, but relies on direct instruction in what experts call the “foundational reading skills:” phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Everyone needs these skills to read and write, though learning them occurs at different speeds.

Among the first and most fundamental skills kids must develop is learning to decode written words by mapping sounds to letters and letter combinations, known as phonics. Around 60% of kids struggle with this unless they are given frequent and explicit instruction in the earliest grades, according to Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist and former chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institutes of Health. It’s also a skill that, for the last several decades, was not the focus of reading instruction in some Oregon teacher colleges and some public schools, according to dozens of interviews with current and former school and university administrators by the Capital Chronicle.

Another popular method of reading instruction in Oregon and other states has included teaching some phonics, but also involves teaching kids to guess at words using context from surrounding words, letters and pictures, to memorize words and presupposed kids would learn to read at their own pace if provided with good books. Several of the nation’s top reading experts have concluded such methods are detrimental to learning how to read in the long term.

Previous laws

Kotek’s directive is not the first of its kind. In 2015, the state Legislature passed a law requiring Oregon’s colleges of education to prepare future teachers to get kids reading at grade level by the end of third grade. In 2017, the Legislature passed another law requiring teacher colleges to train future teachers to screen for dyslexia, a reading disability, and other reading difficulties. Following both laws, the state’s educator preparation programs had to submit compliance reports to the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission showing that they were providing students with courses, textbooks and practical experience rooted in “evidence-based reading instructional methods,” and foundational reading skills, including phonics skills.

But Anthony Rosiliez, director of the commission, said that the requirements for showing compliance with the laws were vague, and they did not end the teaching of specific reading instructional methods.

“The challenge becomes what’s been considered ‘evidence-based reading instructional strategies’ has varied through time and evolved through time,” Rosiliez said.

Kotek said any new compliance requirements will be very specific about reading instructional methods that won’t be accepted.

“We’re going to be a lot clearer,” Kotek said.

Kotek has also said new teacher licensure requirements must align with an updated K-5 literacy framework, currently in draft form, that will be finalized by the Oregon Department of Education on May 30. The framework is essentially a set of recommendations for best practices in reading instruction. The previous version written by state reading experts in 2012 included recommendations for the teaching of foundational reading skills, including phonics, and evidence-based reading instructional methods. But one of its authors, a former director of the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning, Stan Paine, said he doesn’t believe it was used to enforce policies or inform teacher licensure.

“It certainly contains a lot of the same content,” Paine said about the updated draft framework. “Maybe this is the restart or the reboot.”

Copying other states

Another state – Mississippi – also struggled with improving teacher training. Targeting teacher licensing was part of its massive overhaul of reading instruction and policies that started in earnest about a decade ago. In 2016, the state required candidates for teacher licensure pass a Foundations of Reading exam, testing them on their understanding of scientifically based reading research and teaching methods.

“Some of our graduates from our premier universities did not make the cut,” said Kymyona Burk, former state literacy director for the Mississippi Department of Education, and an architect of the state’s reading overhaul. “Then we had parents of college students who were calling and saying, ‘My child cannot begin his or her career because they can’t be licensed because they didn’t pass this test.’”

This, she said, put pressure on the colleges to change their instructional methods after years of resistance. In 2019, twice as many fourth graders in Mississippi reached reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as had a decade prior, and the state went from the bottom in the nation to 29th for reading proficiency.

Oregon’s 15 teacher colleges


  • Eastern Oregon University (La Grande)
  • Oregon State University (Corvallis)
  • Oregon State University Cascades Campus (Bend)
  • Portland State University (Portland)
  • Southern Oregon University (Ashland)
  • University of Oregon (Eugene)
  • Western Oregon University (Monmouth)


  • Bushnell University (Eugene)
  • Corbon University (Salem)
  • George Fox University (Newburg)
  • Linfield University (McMinnville)
  • Lewis & Clark University (Portland)
  • Pacific University (Forest Grove)
  • University of Portland (Portland)
  • Warner Pacific University (Portland)

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Alex Baumhardt is a JPR content partner from the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Before that Alex was a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media.