California Aims to Come From Behind in Making Sure Children Learn to Read, But Some See New Push as Political

Katie Stidham, a first-grade teacher at Shull Elementary in the Bonita Unified School District, provides reading instruction in a small group. Bonita ranked first in a “report card” on how well districts are preparing disadvantaged Latino third-graders to read. (Bonita Unified School District)

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It’s been more than a decade since California’s education system placed a strong emphasis on making sure educators know how to teach children to read. Reading experts and parent advocates say a lack of consistent attention to the issue since then shows.

Thirty-seven percent of the state’s fourth-graders score below the basic level on federal reading tests, and a recent report shows many districts are struggling to provide strong reading instruction to disadvantaged Latino students — who make up over 40 percent of the state’s K-12 population.

Meanwhile other states, such as Mississippi, have enacted major legislation aimed at improving reading achievement and have seen gains. 

Now, with young readers set further behind by the pandemic, California lawmakers and state officials are trying to catch up and attacking the problem on multiple fronts. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation last month ensuring that prospective teachers learn reading instruction practices backed by research. Another proposed bill would require universal screening for dyslexia. And state Superintendent Tony Thurmond has launched his own literacy agenda, creating a task force aimed at making sure all third-graders can read by 2026 and pledging to distribute 1 million books to students. But some wonder whether leaders have thought through all it will take to reduce racial gaps in reading performance.

Stephanie Gregson, deputy executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit working to help low-performing districts improve, is among those saying a piecemeal approach to addressing poor reading performance won’t work.

“Where’s the coherence and the coordination of those efforts?” she asked during a recent virtual summit held by the California Reading Coalition, the new organization that released the “report card” ranking 287 districts on the percentage of low-income Latino third-graders meeting or exceeding grade-level reading standards. Gregson added that while this year’s state budget includes $10 million for literacy training for teachers, “We have to think about the context of California. How far will $10 million go?”

Gregson, who began her career as an elementary school teacher in Sacramento and served as a deputy state superintendent until last month, said she was among those who left college unprepared to teach reading to students from homes where English is not the first language.

Senate Bill 488, now law, would aim to make sure that doesn’t happen to new teachers entering the field. The legislation requires colleges and universities to meet higher standards for ensuring that new teachers can teach “foundational reading skills” and have strategies for supporting English learners. The state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing will certify teacher preparation programs, and candidates for elementary and special education teaching positions will have to pass a new literacy assessment, beginning July 2025.

The new assessment replaces an existing test for teachers that many have criticized as outdated and difficult to pass. But that’s because teacher preparation programs aren’t doing an adequate job of making sure teachers are well prepared to teach reading, said Lori DePole, co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia California, an advocacy group that supports the new law.

“This bill raises the bar on teacher prep programs to do a better job in preparing … candidates to teach evidence-based reading instruction,” she said.

In a 2020 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, one school in the state — California State University, Bakersfield — was among the list of 32 with teacher preparation programs that include all five components of teaching children to read. Those are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. CSU Bakersfield and CSU Dominguez Hills were among the six schools earning A’s for their graduate programs.

DePole’s group pushed to make sure the new legislation incorporates guidelines for teaching students with dyslexia, a learning disability in which children have difficulty processing speech sounds, and, therefore, can struggle with learning to read, spell and speak. 

The organization wants the state to go even further by joining almost 40 others that require schools to implement early universal screening for dyslexia. An estimated 15 percent of the population is affected by dyslexia, which could amount to nearly a million children in California.

“They are the canaries in the coal mine,” DePole said. “We can target these kids early on so they don’t have to wait to fail.”

Reading laws are ‘equity laws’

Some argue that Thurmond has waited too long to make early reading achievement a priority. Kymyona Burk, policy director for early literacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said the state has made “some efforts over the years but not with a state-led, comprehensive approach.”

The foundation’s analysis tracks states’ adoption of literacy policies across five areas, including support for teachers, intervention and notifying parents if teachers identify reading problems. California has “minimal or no fundamental principles,” according to the analysis, while Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and North Carolina are among the 12 states with comprehensive K-3 policies.

“I look at these laws as equity laws,” Burk said during the reading summit. “Some of these things are already happening in higher-performing or higher-income schools. They’re not happening, and they’re not required to happen, everywhere.”

The state, in fact, settled a lawsuit last year after students sued because of poor literacy skills. The settlement includes $50 million in block grants to 75 low-performing districts.

Burk led work in Mississippi when the state implemented a new reading program that emphasized phonics, ensured teachers were using high-quality curriculum materials and trained both university faculty and classroom teachers. Between 2013 and 2019, Mississippi’s fourth-graders climbed from 39th in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to second. And in 2019 — when reading scores for fourth-graders dropped in 17 states — Mississippi was the only one showing significant improvement. 

“Because we’re California, we kind of snicker at Mississippi, but they did a good plan,” said Barbara Nemko, superintendent of the Napa County Office of Education and a member of Thurmond’s task force. ”They made more progress than anyone.”

Some critics have recently questioned Thurmond’s leadership throughout the pandemic. The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that while his push to improve reading is noteworthy, it needs to “result in concrete measures that will bring about real improvement, including a statewide reading curriculum based on a body of real evidence, which might not be popular with all teachers. In other words, Thurmond must take on the tough stuff over the next year.”

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, right, visited the Girls Academic Leadership Academy: Dr. Michelle King School for STEM on Aug. 16, the first day of school in Los Angeles. (Al Seib / Getty Images)

At the district level, some leaders view Thurmond’s goal of getting all third-graders to read by 2026 as a way to win over voters when he faces re-election next year.

“Like many political statements, the date falls beyond the next election cycle and neglects third-graders in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025,” said Don Austin, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District.  “The lack of national urgency around this topic is staggering.”

Austin expressed a sense of urgency about his own district’s performance as well. The low-poverty, well-funded district’s elementary schools all score in the “very high” range on English language arts in the state’s accountability system. But in the California Reading Coalition’s report card, Palo Alto ranked near the bottom, with just 1 in 5 low-income Latino third-graders meeting or exceeding grade-level reading standards.

“I don’t believe we can truly call ourselves the best K-12 school district in California when populations of students are not experiencing the same degree of success,” he said.

The district has since trained teachers in the primary grades in strategies designed to help students with dyslexia and is considering new English language arts curriculum materials.

California Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation revamping the way teacher education programs prepare teaching candidates to teach reading. He read to students at an elementary school in the Palo Alto Unified School District in March. (Palo Alto Unified School District)

“We aren’t chasing a statement from Secretary Thurmond,” Austin said. “We identified the issue, put action steps in place, and plan to see what happens if a district can attack an issue with laser focus.”

Thurmond was not available for comment, but a department email said the “timing is right” to address reading issues. “Thanks to support in this year’s state budget, resources and conditions are in place to make good on a promise of reaching literacy by third grade, a key benchmark in measuring and predicting student success.”  

Nemko said reading, like other issues in education, has been politicized, but that doesn’t mean the task force can’t help bring together the different initiatives currently underway. Her office, for example, is one of seven grantees in the state involved in a federally funded effort to improve literacy from preschool through 12th grade.

“I don’t want to see seven different siloed reports,” she said. “That is confusing and doesn’t lead to a good outcome.”

Others want to see a stronger emphasis on ensuring districts have high-quality curriculum options. Chris Ann Horsley, senior director of elementary curriculum for the Bonita Unified School District, near Los Angeles, said she hopes the task force members “promote the research on successful reading programs and ensure publishers put together curricula using proven methods.”

Sierra Nobbs, an intervention teacher at Grace Miller Elementary in the Bonita Unified School District, works with a small group of fourth-graders. (Bonita Unified School District)

Her district — where almost two-thirds of disadvantaged Latino third-graders read at grade level or above — ranked first in the coalition’s report card. English learners, she said, receive the same phonics-based literacy instruction as English-speaking students, but bilingual aides work in some classrooms to provide additional support. Along with requiring children to read 20-30 minutes a day outside of school, the method results in most English learners being fluent and proficient in English by second or third grade.

“The research has supported this … for years,” she said, “but our state has not ensured that adopted reading programs use this approach.”

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