State leaders need to recognize that learning to read is a civil right and must “get off the fence” and “take responsibility” for the fact that more than 60% of California third graders are reading below grade level, panelists said Thursday during an EdSource roundtable discussion on early literacy.
The state should ensure that teachers are offered research-based training on reading instruction, that K-2 students are screened for risks of reading failure and that reading curricula are tested for effectiveness, said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy instruction advocacy group FULCRUM, Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate.
Calling the failure to teach reading a long-ignored crisis that has been highlighted by the pandemic, Weaver called for action.
“The state needs to get off the fence, and stop placating power,” Weaver said. “We need the leadership at the state level, both in the Legislature and in the Department of Education, so there’s clarity and resources available to teachers to get the greatest number of kids reading.”
Educators and advocates on the panel also highlighted the work of 72 schools across the state that are getting early literacy grants as part of a 2020 $50 million court settlement with the state. While the settlement qualified 75 of the state’s lowest-performing schools to receive funding, 72 applied for the grants.
The lawsuit, brought by the advocacy law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law challenged the state to recognize the basic right “that all children had to be given the tools by which they would have the opportunity to learn,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney in the case.
“Tragically, the state of California fought us. They said no such right existed. They said these kids did not have a right. They blamed the kids as opposed to the system itself. This is not a failure of children. It’s a failure of the state of California and the system itself. They fought us tooth and nail, but ultimately, we won in court that the right existed.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom said the administration has, in fact, made early childhood literacy a “top priority” in recent years and pointed to his 2022-23 budget proposal for $700 million “to hire training coaches and reading specialists, expand multilingual school libraries, and improve early identification and screening for learning differences.”
Newsom’s plan, unveiled in January, includes $500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists, as well as a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally-relevant texts for reading instruction. Newsom’s proposal calls for $10 million to support dyslexia research at UC San Francisco. Newsom himself struggled with dyslexia as a child. Since 2019, the state has invested $92.7 million in research, services, and professional development to improve literacy instruction and support for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Rosenbaum said state leaders should now look at how the schools getting funding following the lawsuit have improved their students’ reading performance as a model for how it can be done in the rest of the state. “If this is a pilot program, it has succeeded,” Rosenbaum said. “We don’t need a task force; we don’t need more studies; we just need a commitment to expand to every kid, every teacher, and every school where the need is, which is up and down the state of California.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond last fall set the goal of getting all third-graders reading by 2026 and created a task force of education experts to figure out how to achieve that goal. Thurmond is also calling on districts and charter schools to adopt that goal and offering them technical assistance. His office released a statement noting that Thurmond supports Newsom’s literacy proposals and “from day one has dedicated himself to supporting the success of all California’s students, especially those who have faced disproportionate barriers in the educational system. He is on record time and time again saying, ‘Reading is a gateway skill. If you can learn to read, you can read to learn anything. When children don’t learn to read by third grade there is a greater chance they fall victim to the school to prison pipeline.'”
Panelists agreed that the research on how students learn to read should guide educators when helping children learn the skill.
Becky Sullivan, of the Sacramento County Office of Education, who is guiding the participating schools as they carry out their programs, emphasized that third grade is just too late. Children must be taught how to read by the end of first grade, she said. “So we basically have 360 days to get it right. You have kindergarten and first grade, you have got to get it done. And then the journey is so much more successful and easier for kids.”
For years, experts have identified third grade reading proficiency as an important benchmark in students’ overall academic careers. Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by then will struggle to catch up throughout their educational careers and can be at greater risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.
Panelists cautioned against focusing too much on the reading scores of third graders. The state used third grade reading levels to identify which schools would receive the grants because “that’s all we have,” said Jamie Allardice, principal of Richmond’s Nystrom Elementary, one of the schools getting the funding. The state’s Smarter Balanced test for English language arts isn’t given to earlier grades. Nystrom used some of its grant funding to conduct the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessments for its students.
The schools are only in their first year in the program, which provides just three years of funding. Sullivan, who leads the oversight, said the Sacramento County Office of Education developed a three-year plan for the schools to improve their literacy instruction. Each developed a unique “literacy action plan” that includes assessments and consistent data collection. Each school receives monthly professional development for not only teachers but literacy coaches, administrators and anybody else involved in teaching students how to read, Sullivan said.
The County Office of Education also introduced the schools to the “science of reading” approach to literacy instruction, which is based on research on how students learn to read, and puts a heavy emphasis on phonics. Nystrom continues to see growth across all grades after implementing this approach.
The science of reading differs from the “balanced literacy” approach to reading instruction, which limits the amount of time spent on phonics instruction in order to allow students to develop their own love for reading.
The debate on which approach is better has been dubbed “the reading wars.” Panelists were in agreement that the wars are over, with research supporting explicit phonics instruction. Some educators still strongly believe in balanced literacy and getting them to break from that approach remains a challenge to spreading the science of reading to more schools, Sullivan said.
“How kids learn how to read is settled science,” Sullivan said. “We have this big implementation gap getting it into classrooms.”
Training teachers on the science of reading approach led to early literacy gains at Joshua Elementary School in Lancaster School District, especially in grades K-3, said principal Lorraine Zapata.
“One of the things that I think this grant brought to us was the shared, common understanding of what the science of reading is and that we do have the ability to teach our students in a way that is research-based and best practices,” she said.
Panelists also agreed that it was critically important for teachers to be trained in the science of reading as part of a comprehensive training plan for the whole school system.
The roundtable, moderated by Anne Vasquez, EdSource executive director, and Karen D’Souza, early education reporter, opened with a trailer from an upcoming documentary featuring Weaver titled “The Right To Read.”
In addition to Newsom’s proposals to increase literacy funding, legislators are also considering several bills aimed at improving literacy.
Assembly Bill 2465 would create grant programs to provide library cards to every public school student, fund programs that would include home visits to engage families in their students’ literacy instruction, and pay for the development and credentialing of 500 new bilingual educators. AB 2498 would establish a three-year pilot summer literacy and learning-loss mitigation program next year based on the Freedom Schools programs. SB 952 would provide grants to school districts, county offices of education and certain charter schools to create dual language immersion programs. SB 237 would require the state to start screening all kindergartners, first graders and second graders for dyslexia starting in the 2022-23 school year.
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