Oregon must commit to the early literacy success initiative

Teacher works with students

Oregon students, especially Black students, lag in literay skills. (U.S. Department of Education/Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

‘H’ goes “huh”

‘A’ goes “ah”

‘T’ goes “tuh”


Teaching kids to read is about connecting sounds to letters, letters to words, words to meaning. 

The last decade of brain research has taught us that when kids learn these connections, they have a better chance at learning to read.

However, in many Oregon schools, students may be shown the word “hat” next to a picture of a baseball cap and told to guess the word from context. This wires their growing brains to skip over the individual letters and see the word as a whole. As words get longer and more complex, that spells trouble.

We all share a fundamental responsibility to make sure every child can read, but many Oregon students – and educators – are being let down. In 2019, only 46% of Oregon students passed the state benchmark for third-grade reading. Among Black students, that percentage was nearly halved (26%). Only three states have scores lower than Oregon.

These tragic results reflect a changeable systemic failure – one that we must solve with urgency. Educators across the state work tirelessly outside of existing systems – often on nights and weekends – to align classroom practices with research. We must support our educators in order to set our students up for early literacy success.

We applaud our governor and our lawmakers for introducing legislation that would fund taking steps this legislative session to respond to the early literacy crisis in our state.

The science of reading is complex and layered, but the data is clear: There are proven systematic methods to teach reading that, when combined, lead to success. The state must fully fund these culturally responsive, evidence-based strategies to respond to our early literacy crisis: 

  • access to an early literacy curriculum or instructional materials that are standards-based and aligned with the science of reading
  • professional learning and literacy coaching opportunities for educators to align their instructional practices with research
  • high-dosage tutoring for students who need more personalized learning time and intensive support
  • summer programming, and other extended learning opportunities, for students to receive additional instructional time

Getting all of these essential ingredients in place – particularly in the primary grades – will better ensure our students experience long-term success throughout their educational careers. 

While this layered approach will best set districts and our students up for success, providing educators with literacy coaching is an especially critical component, as it has been proven to be the key driver in improving early literacy outcomes. 

Our districts – Portland Public Schools and North Clackamas – have already begun  to make critical investments in many of these areas, including literacy-related coaching and professional development, and we’re thrilled that we’ve begun seeing early signs of success. We will continue to implement evidence-based practices to support our early learners and their literacy development.

We are optimistic that the state will make the same kind of commitment to all of Oregon’s children, and we need them to make it with additive funding – not by taking it away from other school funding. Early literacy initiatives would cost the state $300 million per biennium, and $225 to initiate the strategies. Our state must provide at least $225 million this biennium so that another two years of young learners have the opportunity and support necessary to read at grade level. 

Improving student outcomes in Oregon requires this level of commitment – both in policy and in funding – to effective, systematic, evidence-based literacy practices in the early grades across all of our schools. 

Students’ opportunity to develop essential early literacy skills makes all other learning possible. There is perhaps no stronger factor than being a proficient reader that positively influences a students’ educational and life outcomes. If the legislature fully funds this initiative, they will quite literally change the trajectory of thousands of students’ lives. A focus on early literacy in Oregon is an investment in our future. 

We ask our legislators to stand for children across Oregon by funding this research-aligned and equity-centered early literacy legislation.

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Shay James
Shay James

Shay James is the superintendent of the North Clackamas School District, previously serving as assistant superintendent of education and executive director of high school programs. Prior to her current work,she held several roles with Portland Public Schools, where she worked as a teacher, assistant principal, vice principal, principal and senior director of high schools and college and career readiness. She is passionate about and accomplished in inspiring excellence, measurable results and equitable outcomes. She is committed to removing barriers and providing the structures and leadership necessary to accelerate growth toward success for all students.

Guadalupe Guerrero
Guadalupe Guerrero

Guadalupe Guerrero is the Superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He has championed early literacy, overseen the adoption of a new instructional framework and standards-based curricula and expanded visual and performing arts programming and career technical education opportunities. Guerrero was named the 2021 national superintendent of the year by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and he is the incoming chair of the Council of the Great City Schools. A classically trained violinist, he holds a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles and two master’s degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Sarah Pope
Sarah Pope

Sarah Pope is the executive director at Stand for Children Oregon. She is a product of Oregon’s public schools and a passionate advocate for educational equity. As chief of staff for the Oregon Department of Education, Sarah led the implementation of Oregon’s first statewide strategic investments in education to accelerate improvements and increase educational equity. Before joining Stand for Children, Sarah was the deputy superintendent at the Northwest Regional Education Service District, Oregon’s largest education service district. Sarah received her master’s in education leadership from the University of Oregon and holds a K-12 administrative license.