Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

Why Some Teachers’ Unions Oppose ‘Science of Reading’ Legislation

By Sarah Schwartz & Madeline Will — March 28, 2023 11 min read
Addison Fleshman reads "Green Eggs and Ham" as students celebrate Dr. Seuss Week in Teresa Francis' kindergarten class Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, at Westview Elementary School in Jonesboro, Ind.
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As more state legislatures seek to pass “science of reading” legislation this session, some teachers’ unions are mounting opposition—citing concerns about mandates that would limit teachers’ professional autonomy in the classroom and what they argue are unreasonable implementation timelines.

Many of these bills propose a wholesale restructuring of how reading is taught, mandating new training for teachers, prescribing lists of curriculum materials, and banning teaching methods that aren’t backed by research.

In pushing back against the proposals, the teachers’ unions are trying to walk a fine political line: affirming the need for strong instruction, while defending teachers’ professional autonomy to use the methods they think work best.

“To the extent that these laws remove teacher choice from certain decisions about curriculum and pedagogy and instructional style, it’s not at all a surprise that you’d see unions be in opposition to those, even if they support the arguments behind the science of reading,” said Melissa Arnold Lyon, an assistant professor of public policy at the University at Albany.

One issue has become particularly sensitive: Lawmakers’ attempts to prohibit three-cueing, an approach to word reading that encourages students to rely on pictures and context to predict words, which researchers say can inhibit skilled reading.

“Our teachers want to do what’s best—we’re huge proponents of following the science,” said Melissa Cropper, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “Of course we want to follow the science when it comes to the research in reading.”

But the Ohio governor’s plan to ban three-cueing materials goes too far, she said: “To ban any type of teaching is a slap in the face to educators.”

Researchers and advocates who have shaped these laws argue that such a level of detail is necessary to ensure schools are using the most effective tools at their disposal.

“It’s just dependent on where people fall on a spectrum between autonomy and best practice,” said Amanda Aragon, the executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, an education advocacy group that has worked on early literacy legislation in the state.

“I’m looking at data that shows we have the worst reading results in the country, and I think that in order to make rapid change that our students deserve, it’s going to take aligned instruction,” she said, referring to 2022 results on the National Asssessment of Educational Progress.

Even so, some union officials remain wary of top-down mandates. Mary Parr-Sanchez, the president of NEA-New Mexico, says she doesn’t believe in “silver bullets.”

“It’s complicated,” she said. “I’m willing to look at new ideas, just like the next person. But I think when you walk a mile in an educator’s shoes, you’ve seen a lot of these things and you have to be a little bit suspicious.”

Concerns about uneven and rushed implementation

The “science of reading” refers to a body of research on how children learn to understand text. Reading is a complex process that involves many different skills, but one foundational piece has come to dominate the national conversation—how kids learn to read words.

Decades of studies have shown that the most effective way to teach young children how to do this is through phonics instruction: teaching how letters represent sounds, and then how to blend those sounds together. But reporting from Education Week and other outlets, along with national surveys, have shown that other, less effective methods of teaching foundational reading skills are ubiquitous in elementary schools.

Since 2019, more than two dozen states have passed laws requiring that schools use methods for teaching reading that are aligned with research on how children learn, and lawmakers in at least 10 states have introduced similar legislation this session.

Critics and supporters of the legislation alike have raised concerns about uneven and rushed implementation.

Teachers’ unions point out that many of these bills leave the details about professional development up to individual school districts, which could create wide variations in how much teachers are paid for attending training sessions and whether those trainings are on or off the clock. (In North Carolina, some districts paid teachers up to $1,000 for completing a state-mandated training, while others didn’t pay teachers for the time at all.)

“Sadly, it is so easy for [lawmakers] to pass such regulations and want to applaud themselves for what they’re doing about reading—and then just dumping it on to school districts to figure it out,” said Keith Gambill, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “That’s just not the right way to do this. Reading is something that is so vitally important, we want to make sure we do it right.”

Indiana lawmakers are mulling over several pieces of legislation that would change how students are taught to read, and how teachers are trained. For example, House Bill 1590, which has passed the House, focuses on teacher preparation and licensure, while Senate Bill 402, which has passed the Senate, would prohibit schools from using the three-cueing method and require them to adopt curriculum that is based on the science of reading.

ISTA has concerns about some parts of the bills, including the proposal to ban three-cueing and the lack of detail about how teachers will be trained in the new curriculum. In order to get the best results for students, teachers need to know and understand the research, Gambill said, adding that comprehensive training takes time and requires resources.

“We can’t just suddenly say, ‘Tomorrow, all reading classes will be the science of reading,’ and expect that on a moment’s notice, everything just shifts,” Gambill said. “To simply say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and you send every teacher into a couple days worth of training, or even worse, a few sessions after school, and expect them in the next year to be experts in this—that’s absolute folly.”

More training alone can give teachers new knowledge, but it doesn’t guarantee that they have the time or resources to actually shift practice, said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The issues are neither teacher by teacher, nor just changing kids’ minute by minute experience in instruction,” she said. “There’s something really important that needs to change about the systems and structure and leadership.”

District leaders need time to create new instructional plans, money for new curriculum materials, and systems in place for coaching and supporting teachers—provisions these laws don’t always include, Woulfin said.

Requiring these changes from teachers in the middle of the pandemic added an extra burden, said Whitney Holland, the AFT New Mexico president.

After the state passed a 2019 law requiring that schools follow evidence-based methods in reading instruction, the public education department launched training in LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, starting in the 2020-21 school year.

“These are best practices based on research,” said Holland, a former 3rd grade teacher. “It’s not a criticism. We’ve learned better, and we have to do better.”

Yet Holland has been frustrated with the rollout of the LETRS training. Teachers’ experiences differed depending on their district, and some were asked to participate in training outside of their contract hours. “People were so worn out and so tired that [the training] really didn’t get a fair chance right away,” she said.

Debates rage over ‘three-cueing’

Some bills have driven more controversy than others.

In particular, teachers’ unions in several states have protested attempts to ban the three-cueing method. The approach encourages students to use multiple sources of information, or “cues” to decipher the words on the page. They could look to the letters and try to decode the word, but they could also make predictions based on pictures or context.

“The cueing system is not aligned with research,” said Chanda Rhodes Coblentz, an assistant professor of education at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. “It’s basically a fancy way of saying, we’re allowing kids to guess at words.”

However, some union officials, including one from the National Education Association, say banning an instructional practice undermines teachers’ professional expertise and autonomy. They argue that teachers know what’s best for their students and that there might be situations where learning to draw on contextual and syntactic information might make sense for an individual child, even if the method is not used for the whole class.

More generally, some unions argue that lawmakers are overstepping their authority in dictating classroom practice.

But Rhodes Coblentz said this isn’t a question of choice between equally good options. Cueing is a tool that “doesn’t work,” she said.

See Also

The state of North Carolina is taking measures to improve reading rates in elementary schools, including in this first grade classroom at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C.
The state of North Carolina is taking measures to improve reading rates in elementary schools, including in this first grade classroom at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C.
Kate Medley for Education Week

“We would not encourage medical doctors to continue practicing approaches that are wrong. … But we think it’s OK for teachers to continue doing things that research says are harming kids,” she continued. “To me, it’s a matter of ethics at this point. Stop. Stop teaching kids to guess.”

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed budget includes $64 million for science of reading curricula and about $100 million for teacher training and professional development, including literacy coaches. He also asked the state legislature to ban the use of three-cueing materials or lessons.

Both of the state’s teachers’ unions have said they support the “science of reading” as a concept and want more research-based practices in schools, but they are opposed to banning three-cueing, which they say would intensify scrutiny of teachers’ day-to-day work.

“That’s establishing a precedent that is really dangerous and really could open up schools and teachers to all kinds of litigation, and all kinds of conflict and problems,” said Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association. “You’ve got to always be cautious about micromanaging decisions that ought to be made at the local level.”

After all, the unions argued, if teachers receive the appropriate training and are implementing a “science of reading” curriculum with fidelity, banning a method of teaching is unnecessary. It starts the initiative off “in a negative way,” said Cropper, of the OFT.

“Let’s provide them with the research, let’s provide them with the professional development, and trust them to make the best decisions for their students,” she said.

Some unions have successfully pushed back against cueing bans. In Minnesota, prior versions of legislative proposals included these prohibitions, which the state teachers’ union opposed.
“That raises a lot of academic freedom questions for us, that raises a lot of questions about being able to differentiate based on student need,” said Justin Killian, an education issues specialist at Education Minnesota.

The current version of the Read Act, a 2023 bill that would require teachers to receive new training and schools to use evidence-based literacy curriculum, does not specifically ban cueing.

Can policy support ‘continuous development’?

Minnesota legislators ultimately involved lots of different groups to develop the Read Act, and the union has testified in support of the proposal.

“It hasn’t always been friendly. We’ve had some very difficult conversations over the years,” Killian said. “I think it’s been critical to making sure that we get things across the finish line in a way that actually has a chance of moving the needle for kids and teachers.”

Legislators have pitched the Read Act as a step toward equity, a tool that could raise reading achievement for students of color and students from low-income families. But for that to work, schools needed resources, Killian said.

“If we come in and say, ‘Now we need you to go do 20 more hours of training, and we’re probably not going to give you any more money or hours to do that,’ this is going to make the problem that’s driving the achievement gap even worse,” he said.

The current version of the bill allows school districts to use Read Act funding to pay for training, substitutes so teachers can attend training during work hours, and financial incentives for teachers to complete it.

“We had to be the voice in the room saying, [teachers] don’t have time to go to the bathroom right now,” Killian said.

Woulfin, at UT Austin, said reading legislation has the potential to be stronger and more effective when it considers “the state and nature of the conditions in place for teachers to do their best work.”

This could mean mandating support systems for teachers who are asked to change practice, like additional planning time or coaching. Or, legislation could require that states evaluate the effectiveness of new policies, such as whether student reading scores improving, and whether improvement differs across districts and demographics.

“We’re very comfortable writing policies that are about accountability, but there are ways to write policies that are about support and continuous development,” Woulfin said. “It takes a little more time than putting a rule in place and flipping a switch.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why Some Teachers’ Unions Oppose ‘Science Of Reading’ Legislation

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