Green: California Senate Bill Would Move State Backward on Literacy and Teacher Qualifications. That Would Be a Disaster for Our Kids

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Children do not just figure out how to read on their own, because the human brain is not wired to read. We know that children can learn how to talk naturally by being talked to, by being surrounded by speech. The same is not true of reading. Scientific research has repeatedly shown that the reading of letters combined into words is not a natural process. Children must be explicitly taught how to read.

California Senate Bill 614 would abandon the state’s minimum requirement that elementary school teachers demonstrate a basic understanding of science-based reading instruction as a condition of earning a teacher license. SB 614 would be a disservice to the majority of families with students in public schools who rely on the state and public schools to uphold their constitutional responsibility to ensure that every child receives a basic education and equitable opportunity to learn.

Arguments over reading instruction had been part of California’s education wars for decades. In the 1980s and early ’90s, “whole language” proponents advanced policies that assumed children would pick up reading by osmosis — surround them with a print-rich environment and read out loud, and a child would become a fluent reader. By the mid-1990s, California reading scores had fallen to the bottom of the nation.

Alarmed by the fall in reading achievement, the legislature worked across party lines to examine the science of reading instruction. Based on compelling evidence, California established policies to ensure all teachers had at least a minimal understanding of research-based reading instruction. This included modification of the California Education Code to clearly identify foundational skills needed for fluent reading with the expectation that schools of education would work to train new teachers appropriately. And, in the meantime, the state invested hundreds of millions of dollars in summer reading training for existing teachers.

By 2000, the National Reading Panel convened during the presidency of Bill Clinton settled decades-long arguments over reading instruction by exhaustively examining the scientific evidence on how the human brain responds to various strategies of reading instruction. The science is clear: Explicit instruction on the connection between letters and the corresponding sounds the letters make is foundational to fluent reading.

Serving California on the instructional materials panel and later as president of the State Board of Education, I worked closely with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to ensure that the frameworks, textbooks, teacher training in summer institutes and license requirements all aligned with the settled research. California started down the path of a badly needed course correction using the proven science of reading.

In 2003, only 33 percent of California’s third-graders could read at grade level, and now it’s about half. That’s still not good enough, but SB 614 eliminating all reference to science-based reading instruction in the California Education Code and repealing any requirement that teachers demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading instruction is not the answer.

Today, the science remains definitive: A mastery of the sound-symbol relationship is critical to fluent reading, and it can be taught to all children, including children with cognitive disabilities and those who have dyslexia. But SB 614 would take California backward to a time when we were nearly last in the nation in reading achievement. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now, for California to abandon a minimum requirement that all teachers in the lower grades demonstrate competency in science-based reading instruction.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. By the end of third grade, studies show, kids who are poor readers face devastating consequences. They are more likely to drop out of high school, to live in poverty and to go to prison. And SB 614 provides no assurance to California families that their child’s teacher actually knows how to teach their child to read.

California has a responsibility to all its children. Our society will thrive when all our children can read and when all our teachers practice the science of reading in their classrooms. It is a basic expectation — one that California constitutionally owes to every child. Without keeping that, the legislature will have failed our kids and returned our classrooms to the days when reading failure in public schools was even worse than today.

Ruth Green, a Democrat, served on the state Board of Education from 2004 to 2008, including as president. Green also served as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Santa Barbara Elementary and High School districts and as a member of the California instructional materials advisory panel for reading/language arts in 2002.

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