Top-Performing Connecticut School Districts Face Changes After State’s Denial of Reading Waivers


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Several of Connecticut’s highest achieving school districts may be forced to change their reading programs, after the State Department of Education denied the districts waivers for long-running individualized programs. The department approved many lower-performing districts working more closely with the state, raising a debate regarding the value of overall test scores, and of students falling through the cracks. 

Lyme-Old Lyme Schools Superintendent Ian Neviaser, whose requested exemption from a state-approved reading program was denied earlier this month, told CT Examiner that the rejection of the district’s curriculum didn’t make sense. 

“It’s illogical. There’s no consideration of success,” he said. “I completely support the idea that every kid should be able to read proficiently by third grade, which is [the state’s] mission. Well, we accomplish that by the end of kindergarten. … So why should we be required to spend between $300,000 and $400,000 on a new reading program when we’ve already demonstrated that we can be successful with our current one?” 

In 2021, the state Legislature passed a law requiring the State Department of Education to create at least five “evidence-based” reading programs that focused on specific components of reading, including phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension. Districts were expected to adopt one of the state’s chosen programs to use in their early elementary school classrooms, or could apply for a waiver. 

The district currently uses a combination of programs, including Wilson’s Fundations, Equipped for Reading Success, and Flyleaf and Geode Decodable Books. And last year, 66 percent of Old Lyme third-graders met the state standard for reading, compared to 45.5 percent statewide. 

In its rejection of Lyme-Old Lyme’s curriculum, however, the state wrote that the district’s application didn’t show how the programs worked together as a “comprehensive approach,” that it didn’t specifically address reading comprehension and vocabulary, and that the district didn’t provide “frequent opportunities for students to practice” explicit instruction in writing, culturally responsive texts or learning for diverse needs. 

Other high-scoring districts like Madison and Westport also had their waivers rejected for failing to have a “comprehensive approach” and not addressing topics like reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension. 

Neviaser told CT Examiner that Lyme-Old Lyme’s program met the state rubric standards and that the state was looking at the wrong criteria.  

“Instead of focusing on the programs, the focus should be on the outcomes. If the state sees a district that is not producing the outcomes that they feel are appropriate, then certainly those districts should be supported in putting a program in place that will allow them to have the same outcomes that many of us are fortunate to have,” he said. “It’s creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist for everybody.” 

A new reading law 

Supporters have praised the 2021 law as giving students who struggle due to lack of resources the same opportunities as their peers to read fluently at an early age. 

“When we talk about the science of reading and what the legislation outlines in areas of reading, we know from a quarter century of research compiled over empirical studies that kids learn to read in a certain way. And when we have systematic instruction that follows that method, we can support all kids,” Deputy Commissioner of Education Charles Hewes told the State Board of Education last week. 

State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, told the board that the legislation allowed educators to identify struggling children early on, and to ensure all students, regardless of background, graduate from school able to read fluently.  

“You’re looking at someone who struggled with reading comprehension. You know when I found out I had a problem? When I was in 12th grade and a reading coach realized what my issue was,” Miller said. “I don’t want our students to wait until they are in the 12th grade to figure that out. I want children — especially Black and Hispanic children, the ones who experience the achievement gap or the opportunity gap — I want them to have the same opportunity that I had, and that is to be successful in life.” 

Districts using  programs not already approved by the state were allowed to apply for an exemption. Of the 85 districts that applied for a waiver, 25 were rejected outright and 12 were approved. The rest were asked to modify their proposals, either through adding a component or substituting one of their current programs to better align with state standards. 

The state hired the consulting firm PCG to review the districts’ waivers, and later held one-on-one meetings with districts about their programs. 

Department of Education officials told CT Examiner that the state chose “comprehensive” programs that blended a variety of reading skills together smoothly and showed a clear progression for students. 

“I was a teacher for many years, and it really helps when we are provided a very comprehensive program instead of using our time to run around and try to find resources to plug holes,” said Melissa Hickey, the reading and literacy director for the State Department of Education. 

Hewes noted that the law instructs the state to evaluate programs based on the content of the reading curricula, and that it doesn’t take into account the scores that students earn on state tests or in-district assessments.  

Mike Coyne, head of the educational psychology department at UConn’s Neag School of Education, agreed that districts needed to start with a strong core reading program, so teachers weren’t scrambling to figure things out on their own. When this happens, he said, students can get a different quality of reading instruction based solely on what classroom they end up in. 

“We want there to be a kind of high level of standard of care and instruction,” he said. “What we see a lot is that when it’s left to the teachers to figure out what to do, or there’s sort of vague and general kind of guidelines that require teachers to do a lot of work on their own. … We get significant variability across classrooms.”

Coyne said there are still opportunities for teachers to innovate within the selection of standardized core programs, and that districts might choose different programs based on their needs. 

But school districts with rejected curricula criticized the state for its one-size-fits-all approach. 

Westport Superintendent Tom Scarice told CT Examiner that the state had “moved the goalposts” by changing the rubric it was using to evaluate the districts during the waiver review process. 

“The standards expected to approve the district approach to literacy instruction throughout the waiver process are not the same standards applied to the boxed programs approved by the department,” Scarice said. “Programs do not teach kids. Materials do not teach kids.  Highly skilled professional educators teach kids, and that is what we have in Westport.”  

Madison Superintendent Craig Cooke told CT Examiner that the waiver rejection was an “unwarranted injustice.” 

“I’m not sure how CSDE reconciles for themselves how a district with exceptional reading assessment performance, including all of our schools being named schools of distinction by CSDE, needs a reading program change. We have highly skilled, trained, dedicated teachers who we do not want teaching from a kit,” he said, noting the district’s waiver application was over 600 pages long.   

In an appeal letter to the state written Dec. 14, Cooke said the district’s program was evidence based and that it focused on the five core areas of reading. 

“The erroneous assumption that the purchase of a product will result in all learners accessing high-quality science of reading teaching has the potential for wide-sweeping damage to our youngest learners,” Cooke wrote. 

In Madison and Westport, about 75 percent of third-graders met the state standard for reading last year. 

Rachael Gabriel, a professor of literacy education at UConn’s Neag School of Education, criticized the state’s refusal of programs used in districts like Madison and Westport. She said forcing these districts to adopt a prewritten curriculum showed a “total disdain for educators.”

Gabriel said most of the districts denied a waiver were submitting curricula they had built from scratch in partnership with professional curricula developers. 

“You have to buy something that’s written by someone who’s never set foot in your town. And then have your teachers follow it to a T because it couldn’t possibly be as good as your really fantastic scores. So it … shows sort of this disingenuousness about what’s happening,” she said.

Gabriel agreed that district data — in terms of state test scores and student improvement shown on in-school assessments — should qualify as proof that a district’s reading curriculum was working.

“That is evidence, and it’s as good or better than a study that was conducted on a few hundred kids in some other state at some other time,” she said. “The state asked districts to put together their data and put it in with the waiver, but it seems like it doesn’t matter.” 

Falling Through the Cracks?

Coyne told CT Examiner that he’s concerned that basing a district’s reading program on its overall test scores could miss students from low-income families, students learning English, or with disabilities, who might be falling through the cracks. 

“I think a lot of times, high-performing districts are able to point to overall achievement as a metric of success, but when you dig down a little bit more deeply, there are students with disabilities or there are students that are more at-risk that may not be benefiting equally from that approach,” he said. 

He also noted that students with more resources might get outside reading instruction or tutoring if the in-school curriculum wasn’t working. 

“I’m not sure that I’m convinced that those districts are actually meeting the needs of all those students,”  Coyne said. “I think overall achievement oftentimes masks some really differential outcomes across different subgroups of students.”

But while state data shows there are significant gaps between high-needs students and their counterparts in higher-scoring districts, those same gaps exist in larger urban districts. And students identified as high needs in a high-performing district do substantially better than high-needs students in lower performing districts. 

In Westport, for example, 81.5 percent of students not classified as high needs were meeting state standards for reading last year, compared to 41.7 percent of high-needs students. But in Hartford, whose waiver application was approved, 40.8 percent of students not classified as high needs met state standards for reading last year, while just 11.2 percent of high-needs students were able to read at grade level. 

State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, echoed Coyne’s concern about higher scoring districts and students still struggling to read at grade level.

“What isn’t working for them is the question. And the science of reading is something that is backed up through information and research and all of those sorts of things that people like to see when we talk about implementing any sorts of policies,” Currey said. “And so, hopefully, this will allow districts to remain successful in what they’re doing, but just ensure uniformity throughout the state.”

Currey said he doubted an exception to the law could be made for districts like Madison or Lyme-Old Lyme based on their test scores. 

While admitting he’s not an expert in reading curricula, Coyne said he trusted the vetting process the state used to grant waiver approvals. He also believed that high-scoring districts could improve their efficiency in teaching children how to read.

“I think there’s quite a bit of research that also suggests that kids that are at low risk learn to read faster and better when the approach is more aligned with the science,” he said. “I can imagine that this is a harder kind of thing to think about as a high-resource district if they have good outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve maximized or optimized their outcomes.”

‘One Piece of the Puzzle’

While a number of the state’s highest-performing districts faced rejection, several districts with  waivers approved — including Hartford, New London and Waterbury — have a  low percentage of students scoring  at or above state standards for reading. Last year, only 14.5 percent of third-graders in Hartford, 19 percent of third-graders in Waterbury and 23 percent of third-graders in New London were reading at or above grade level.  

In the case of Waterbury and Hartford, Hickey said, both were in the process of shifting to new state-approved curricula, using a combination of several different curricula that the state approved. 

“They really utilized us as a state and our reviewers to assist them with their process of moving forward,” she said.

Hartford plans to implement a state-approved curriculum in the 2024-25 school year, which was selected in consultation with the State Department of Education in combination with other programs, according to Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez. Torres-Rodriguez said in a statement that the combination of programs were found to be “comprehensive.”  

Dena Moura, the reading and language arts supervisor for Waterbury Public Schools, told CT Examiner that the district submitted a waiver request so it could continue using an earlier version of Wonders, a state-approved program, until their existing license expires.

Moura said Waterbury had been working with the Connecticut Literacy Initiative for over a decade, so their practices were already aligned with the science of reading. When it came time to choose a new curriculum around 2017, she said, the district already had a list of criteria it wanted, specifically based on Waterbury’s needs. 

Once the district instituted the new curriculum, Moura said, reading scores increased steadily until the pandemic hit. According to data from state assessments, the number of third-graders meeting state standards for reading increased from 26.6 percent in 2016-17 to 32.4 percent in 2018-19. The increase held true even for high-needs students — those from low-income families, who are learning English or have disabilities — a group that makes up the majority of Waterbury’s student population. 

Moura said Waterbury educators work with students at their individual reading levels. The district will teach a child with grade-level materials, but also engage in small group sessions to   

address specific challenges, such as phonics or reading comprehension.

“For reading to improve, it’s not just about our curriculum. It’s certainly not just about the programs we use,” she said. “It’s the quality of instruction, it’s the amount of instruction, it’s the assessments, it’s our family engagement, it’s our professional development, it’s our leadership, it’s student motivation — it’s a whole wheel of things that lead into that. But the core program is one piece of that puzzle.” 

Missing the Whole Story

Even within districts granted a waiver, not all superintendents agreed that the process was the best judge of how well a district was succeeding in teaching students to read. 

New London Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie, who received a state waiver, said the process should have been more fair. She said the rubric was “confusing” and that she couldn’t comprehend why consultants claimed the district’s program lacked elements such as reading comprehension, vocabulary and phonemic awareness – components she said were present in her district.

Ritchie, who has a degree in literacy instruction, said the waiver didn’t give districts the opportunity to tell their whole story. 

“Just a few pages read by a stranger all the way from California, who were the evaluators, who has never talked to you or been in a classroom or known your journey — it’s really hard to evaluate a program,” she said. 

She also said it didn’t make sense to evaluate a program without looking at outcomes. Although it’s too early to know how New London’s program — which has only been in use for about three years — would impact state exam scores, Ritchie noted significant achievement levels among early elementary school students. Data from the district’s internal assessments, she said, showed that three-quarters of kindergartners were meeting their reading targets.

Ritchie said another problem with the state’s evaluation was that it didn’t take into account different supplemental programs the district used to help different students. For instance, the district might utilize a particular program to assist English learners and another one to address specific challenges encountered by a child with dyslexia.

“It’s differentiation and matching the needs of the student to the needs of the instruction, and the tools that you’re using that really helps it all come together,” she said. 

She added that students’ progress was also influenced by their engagement with language as infants or toddlers, their exposure to books, the level of involvement their families had with their schools, and experiences of adversity during childhood — rather than solely relying on the effectiveness of a reading program.

Ritchie said New London had an advantage in the waiver process by working closely with the state to develop a K-3 literacy plan, but that she had faith her colleagues in other districts were also doing great work. 

“The state knew our story because we did so much work together, and I bet if the state knew the story of everybody else, waiver results would change again,” she said. 

This story has been edited to correct the cost estimates by Ian Neviaser

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.