A popular reading organization has sued the state of Ohio in an attempt to block changes Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration recently made to how early reading is taught in the state.
The Reading Recovery Council of North America filed a lawsuit against the state and DeWine earlier this month, prompted largely by the bill’s attempt to stamp out a teaching practice that it has used in its own teacher-training program.
It’s one of the first major legal challenges to a wave of recent state legislation aiming to align classroom instruction to the “science of reading”—the broad base of research on how children learn to read.
The lawsuit concerns an overhaul to reading instruction passed in the July 2023 budget bill. The budget provided funding for evidence-based educator professional development, literacy coaches, and curriculum.
The budget bill also stipulates that by the 2024-25 school year, all schools must use reading programs that have been approved by the state, and no district can adopt any materials that use a method known as three-cueing.
The three-cuing approach instructs students to rely on many sources of information, rather than just the letters on the page, to figure out how to read words. Researchers have said that this method can discourage children from applying their phonics knowledge, hampering their ability to become strong readers.
It’s those provisions that the Reading Recovery Council of North America is challenging. In the lawsuit, the organization argues that the budget bill sets education policy, something that’s outside of the scope of the bill’s intended purpose to appropriate money.
The lawsuit alleges that the budget bill violates the Ohio Constitution, which says that a bill can only be about one subject—and that it infringes on the Ohio Board of Education’s power to set education policy. It also argues that the law doesn’t “articulate a clear standard for assessing what teaching models or methods might be categorized under the ‘three-cueing’ approach,” rendering it “unconstitutionally vague.”
In a statement, RRCNA Executive Director Billy Molasso argues that banning cueing is government overreach.
“Educators have long debated how best to reach students, but when an educational practice has scientific evidence supporting it, a legislative enactment that prohibits the practice suggests motives entirely outside of educational best practices,” he said.
RRCNA argues that the bill’s literacy provisions should be declared void.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
What is ‘three-cueing’?
Cueing has long been a staple of early elementary school classrooms.
Curriculum programs often offer it as an option for prompting students when they come to a word they can’t decipher. Students are encouraged to look at the picture and think about what word might make sense, or to guess at what word would fit in the context of the sentence.
Recently, some big-name figures in the early reading space have removed the strategy from their programs, acknowledging that it can encourage ineffective methods of word-reading. A few states—including Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—have also banned the strategy as part of initiatives to improve early reading instruction. (Many more states have passed reading legislation that is less prescriptive on curriculum and teaching.)
Reading Recovery, though, has defended its use of the cueing methods.
The program is an intervention for 1st graders who struggle with reading. The method, in which teachers provide 30-minute, one-on-one lessons, was developed by New Zealand researcher Marie Clay in the 1970s. Children read both familiar and unfamiliar texts, which a teacher observes, recording mistakes and helping children when they stumble. Cueing prompts are part of this support, and are embedded in Reading Recovery sample lessons and training materials.
The program has been found to improve students’ reading ability in the short term, but not in the long term. A federally funded study found that by 3rd and 4th grades, former Reading Recovery students performed significantly worse than peers who did not participate in the program, but who had similar 1st grade reading scores.
Reading Recovery’s lawsuit states that the ban on cueing in Ohio’s law “would prohibit the teaching methods employed by RRCNA.”
The lawsuit acknowledges that Ohio, where the organization is based, is a key market for Reading Recovery, and underscores how the state’s new ban would hurt the organization’s bottom line.
RRCNA “derives a significant portion of its operating revenues from annual membership fees paid by members in Ohio,” the lawsuit reads. Because of the ban, it alleges, “RRCNA has experienced a decline in membership of Ohio school districts, and also expects a decline in registrations of Ohio school districts for the annual conference.”
Like Ohio, more than 40 states include “single subject” requirements for legislation in their constitutions, though legal scholars have said that courts have been unable to determine clear and consistent rules for what constitutes a “single” subject.
Ohio advocates have used the law to strike down education policy initiatives in the past. In 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled a school voucher program unconstitutional because it had been passed as part of a state budget bill. The court determined that the voucher program’s inclusion violated the single-subject provision of the state constitution.
Other groups have also spoken out against Ohio’s cueing ban. The president of the Ohio Education Association and the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers both told Education Week earlier this year that bans on specific teaching practices would unduly increase scrutiny on educators’ day-to-day work.
Still, advocates for the ban have said that it’s a necessary step to ensure harmful teaching practices aren’t perpetuated.
“We would not encourage medical doctors to continue practicing approaches that are wrong,” Chanda Rhodes Coblentz, an assistant professor of education at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, told Education Week in March.