Credit: Ashley Hopkinson/EdSource
Victor Reyes, 2, selects a book to read before a summer storytime in San Francisco.

California voters on June 7 will select who will lead the state’s Department of Education as the superintendent of public instruction. Incumbent Tony Thurmond, who is seeking re-election to a four-year term, has six opponents. To inform voters, EdSource is focusing this pre-election piece on the issue of early literacy and how California should tackle what experts have described as a literacy crisis.

The stakes are high: research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade will struggle to catch up throughout their educational career. Only 48.5% of third graders tested at grade level or above in English language arts during the 2018-19 school year, before the pandemic stalled all learning.

See below for the candidates’ answers to questions posed by EdSource reporters.

Seven candidates are running. Joining incumbent Tony Thurmond are Marco Amaral, a special education teacher and South Bay Union School District trustee; Joseph Guy Campbell, who publishes books about Montessori schools and special education; Lance Christensen, vice president of education policy, California Policy Center; Jim Gibson, founder of a technology company and former Vista Unified trustee; Ainye E. Long, a math teacher and department chair in San Francisco Unified; and George Yang, a software architect.  Gibson and Yang did not respond to EdSource’s questionnaire.

They are vying to head up the state’s public education system, the California Department of Education, which serves more than 6 million K-12 students and employs about 2,700. As the top manager, the superintendent can use the bully pulpit of the office to advocate educational priorities.  The post does not include control over the department’s budget, which must be approved by the Legislature and the governor.

The job pays $189,841 a year.

The primary winner must get at least 50% of the vote. If no one does, the two candidates with the most votes will face a runoff in November.

The office is nonpartisan and candidates cannot list their party affiliations on the ballot.

Marco Amaral

Candidate for state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: In the summer of 2021, Marco announced that he will be running for California state superintendent of public instruction as the first working K-12 teacher to ever do so. The campaign is fundamentally grounded in the understanding that it is the people most engaged within education that must change education.

Are you happy with third grade reading test scores in California? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

I think most people that see our reading scores should be, at minimum, shocked. When you break down those scores by categories of students, we see that historically marginalized communities are disproportionately scoring lower than their more privileged peers. However, this is also only part of the story. According to the “California Reading Report Card,” what mattered most, in terms of student test performance, was the type of curriculum and instruction being used in districts/classrooms across the state. I have borne witness to incompetent curriculum application, such as the implementation of Lucy Calkins’ “Units of Study, Readers and Writers Workshop” – a now well-researched curriculum that has proven to be ineffective, especially in areas with a majority non-English-speaking population. Further, special education teachers are woefully under-resourced and overworked, this inevitably leads to lower test scores. We need a State Superintendent of Public Instruction who will improve reading and writing by doing three major things.

  1. Make sure that our school districts aren’t spending their public money on, essentially, useless curriculum that ends up hurting our students rather than helping them out.
  2. California has the largest English language learner population. We need to fully-fund Proposition 58 and stop with the disrespectful funding, via grants, of dual-language programs. Our ELL students learn best when their mother language is reinforced and emboldened.
  3. Superintendent Thurmond has worked hard on improving Black student literacy and achievement. This is a great thing and should be continued and expanded. Our campaign looks forward to continuing and improving on this work. However, he clearly lacks an intersectional lens. From students with disabilities to our foster youth, California requires a superintendent that has the ability and know-how to work for every student, while making sure that every population’s unique needs are being met.

Do you believe the state should take a stronger hand in setting the policies and options for curriculums for achieving universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should this be left to local control?

I support local control, but we need to make sure that local decisions are being based on a well-researched analysis of the district’s needs. We believe that the state needs to be more involved in vetting the curriculums chosen by individual school districts, without taking their local control. Oftentimes, local superintendents and school boards make decisions based off of ideology and not off of data and analysis. It is obvious that something isn’t working in California and that starts with the leadership at the top. Our California Department of Education will be more proactive in recommending and pushing for research-proven methods of teaching literacy to youth. As a special education teacher, and the only person in this race that has taken the RICA (Reading Instruction Competence Assessment) exam, I feel that we are uniquely positioned to push for policy that best serves the needs of all our students.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade?

I think we need to hold districts accountable for growth, not necessarily for reaching a rather arbitrary benchmark. It is difficult to not compare California with other states, but we are not other states, we have a unique population that is incomparable to the rest of the nation. This is our strength. The question is, how do we transform this unique strength of ours to academic achievement for all students? I think part of that answer is in fully embracing who our students and families are, meeting them where they are at, and engaging academic growth through multiple means of instruction. Further, I do believe that the CDE should be looking at district LCAPs (Local Control Accountability Plans) to make sure that they have at least one of their goals focused on literacy development. Again, our campaign believes in local control, however we will be proactive in voicing our concern when we feel local districts are not appropriately using their state and local funds to meet student (literacy) needs.

Should the state increase its funding for resources to improve early literacy like the $500 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and reading specialists for teachers in elementary schools?

Yes, this is a welcomed investment. However, we need to realize that it is one-time funding. Building literacy is a multi-year practice, this isn’t nearly enough. Additionally, it needs to be restated that the investment, although welcomed, will look different from district to district if the curriculum being used from one area to another can vary greatly. I am not necessarily advocating for uniformity in the reading and writing curriculum, but I am advocating for curriculum that is proven to meet the needs of our students. $500 million makes sense, but you can’t just throw money at an issue and expect change. Teachers and paraprofessionals need to be well paid; classrooms need to be modernized with infrastructure that meets every student’s unique learning styles; and, schools should be using curriculum that meets the needs of their most vulnerable student populations. Money is important, but it isn’t everything.

Lastly, we need to be paying more attention to teachers on the ground, not bureaucrats and disconnected academics. This has been missing from the CDE, we will change that.

Joe Campbell

Candidate for state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: Joseph Campbell has worked in and around Montessori education his entire life. Currently he publishes books about Montessori education. Visit CampbellForSuperintendent.com

Are you happy with third grade reading test scores in California? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

I would introduce more Montessori strategies into public instruction and give extra support to students who are struggling.

Montessori early childhood education includes a phonics-based literacy program that makes learning to read and write fun for most young children. In Montessori schools written language learning begins at a young age, but there is no high-pressure academic instruction, and young children are never expected to sit still for long periods of time. Instead, young children “play” with multisensory materials like sandpaper letters for learning sounds and small cardboard cut-out alphabets for learning to build words. Short individual and small group lessons, and independent follow-up work, are integrated into the children’s school day. The Montessori framework gives teachers freedom to incorporate relevant local culture into the curriculum. Most Montessori children develop enthusiasm for language learning and enter first grade with proficiency at or above grade level. Montessori strategies have a lot to offer public instruction.

Dyslexia affects 15-20% of the population, and children with dyslexia need more than phonics. On average, children are diagnosed with dyslexia around age 9. By that time, they may be far behind their peers. This can put them on a dire educational and life path, and can inhibit them from future success.

Early intervention and remediation are key. In some cutting-edge highly inclusive Montessori schools, children are continually assessed from an early age, and given language instruction, therapy, and remediation at the intensity level they need. All children receive appropriate care and attention so they can learn to read and write to the very best of their ability. No one “falls behind.” This could be a reality for all California schools. No child should wait until third grade for intervention. Montessori strategies, along with individual instruction and therapy for children with dyslexia, can help strengthen the educational framework of early literacy.

Do you believe the state should take a stronger hand in setting the policies and options for curriculums for achieving universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should this be left to local control?

Yes. The State Board of Education, as well as the state superintendent, need to encourage local education agencies to provide increased dyslexia screenings, interventions and language therapy to students.

I would like the state to advocate for proven phonics-based curriculums integrated into play-based early childhood programs. In early childhood, language instruction should be holistic and excessive academic instruction is inappropriate. Individualized one-on-one and small group lessons are ideal.

Education policy should set a broad framework that enables teachers to include culturally relevant material from their communities. A lot of educators tell me they like Montessori because it provides them with a framework in which educational sovereignty and liberation are possible. While I believe the state must advocate for sound educational practice, I feel strongly that state policies should enable local control of curriculum and content as much as possible.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade?

I will personally review struggling districts and consider ways to support them. I would strive to provide resources and funding to local agencies, including offering early childhood teachers basic Montessori materials and training.

There are many reasons why literacy rates are comparatively low in California. We are a sanctuary state, and we welcome immigrants, many of whom enter our public schools still learning English. We embrace our linguistic diversity and offer instruction in many languages. We pride ourselves in teaching our children social justice and equity, not just academics. Our learners are more diverse, and unfortunately, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor is greater here. Over half a million students in California are currently experiencing homelessness.

Despite how our scores compare with other states, California continues to lead the nation. The best and the brightest are born and raised here, and come up through California public schools. We are leaders in industry, art, music, and science.

We can get literacy right in this state and there is a huge opportunity for Montessori education to help. Surely, districts will face many challenges in the years to come, but overall trends are improving, so we must continue to collaborate, fund, and pursue proven methods to foster literacy.

Should the state increase its funding for resources to improve early literacy like the $500 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and reading specialists for teachers in elementary schools?

As a child, I struggled to learn to read and write. My mom was a Montessori teacher. In second grade she intervened. For months she worked with me every morning before school, but I didn’t really “catch up” until I graduated from college. Today, there is more awareness around dyslexia, but many children still do not receive the intervention and support they need.

One-on-one or small group work with reading specialists can make a huge difference. Without intervention children may face an educational situation which can prevent them from achieving success later down the road. I hope Gov. Newsom’s proposal will start with strong support to students in first grade. We should want every child to have literacy skills above and beyond any standards.

Lance Christensen

Candidate for state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: A father of five, Lance Christensen has 20 years of direct experience in education policy, as a teacher, legislative consultant, parent advocate, education nonprofit executive, and public finance specialist. Lance, who knows what it takes to produce an exceptional education, has the vision and leadership to re-establish California as the country’s best place to educate our children, and is willing to fight to add parents back into the education equation. Visit lancechristensen.com

Are you happy with third grade reading test scores in California? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

No, I’m not happy with third grade test scores or the incumbent’s inability to do anything of substance to adequately address the situation. As the incumbent has demonstrated, billions of dollars in big government programs or millions of free books or more task forces miss the target entirely. The only way that we get third graders reading proficiently is through active local programs and strong parental involvement. Further, anything short of parents or family members consistently reading with their children every single day will not improve the situation. And in cases where there are legitimate learning disabilities or other challenges preventing young children from reading, we need to provide parents with resources they control that follow the child to tutors, reading specialists and learning centers. That can be done with increased access to public charter schools and programs as well as individual education savings accounts — all things the teachers’ unions oppose.

Do you believe the state should take a stronger hand in setting the policies and options for curriculums for achieving universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should this be left to local control?

No. The state has done enough damage and should resist the effort to waste billions of dollars of more money in another ineffectual reading program. I’m hard-pressed to find a state with more state-led reading resources and programs and yet, as EdSource recently noted, California is a spectacular failure in literacy. The state should take every penny it has in any reading or literacy program and send those dollars to the local districts for individual education savings accounts that would provide for tutoring kids who need help in reading.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade?

First, get the state out of reading programs entirely. Then remind Californians that while school districts decide upon relevant curriculum and pedagogy, parents are ultimately responsible for any success or failure in their own children’s literacy. This does not mean that parents should be cast off alone in teaching their kids to read. Parents need support and are entitled to taxpayer dollars to help their children get a high quality public education or specialized support where there are difficult learning challenges. And if trustees and superintendents persist in literacy programs and fads that continue to fail our students, they should be kicked out of office and replaced by adults who will get back to the basics.

Should the state increase its funding for resources to improve early literacy like the $500 million proposed by Gov. Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and reading specialists for teachers in elementary schools?

Before answering the question, it would be helpful to know how is this money going to be allocated and spent. Are we simply just hiring more “specialists” who become cogs in the wheels and have difficulty navigating the teachers’ unions rules on helping kids that can’t read? I can already guarantee that anything Gov. Newsom and Superintendent Thurmond will propose will be a complete failure. How? Just look at the last four years they have been in control.

Rather than spend a half-billion dollars on another categorical program, how about we cut the Department of Education’s budget by half (if not more), reprioritize those dollars and put billions more of other new categorical spending into education savings accounts and let the parents decide the best places to spend those dollars for specialized tutoring and literacy services? This could easily be accommodated by local school districts.

Jim Gibson

Candidate for state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: Jim Gibson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was schooled in the Philadelphia Public School System. At age 16 Jim was unable to read simple sentences and decided that if he was ever going to learn to read, he would have to do it on his own. Jim spent that summer learning how to read. From there on out Jim’s grades improved. Two years later Jim applied to college and was accepted into a four-year degree college. After graduating from college Jim joined the Marine Corps and became a captain. While in the Marine Corps Jim earned his master’s in business administration. After leaving the Marine Corps he started a technology company that went national.

Jim served over 20 years on the Vista Unified School District and won all the major votes because parents and others in the community showed up and supported him.

Jim is running for superintendent of public instruction because in the last 40 years that position has been controlled by the teachers union and outcomes have been dismal.

Learn more here.

Did not respond to questions.

Ainye E. Long

Candidate for superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: Ainye Long has over 20 years experience advocating for youth and high-quality public education, with over 15 years experience as a classroom mathematics teacher, school board president and school system administrator. Long received her dual bachelor of arts in economics and American studies from the University of California Santa Cruz, her administrative service training from the Fortune School of Education (Sacramento), and her single-subject mathematics credential from California State University Dominguez Hills.

Website: AinyeLong.com

Are you happy with the third grade reading test scores? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

No, I am not happy with our third grade reading test scores. In 2019, shortly before pandemic quarantine, California had a decrease in reading scores and a widening of the academic achievement gap in reading assessment. That was in 2019. I am curious how current rising fourth graders will perform. On the heels of a decline, our current third graders have the pandemic challenge. Being a classroom teacher through pandemic, I have noticed low math skills across the board with my students – Black, White, affluent, low-income – across the board!
Now more than ever we need to catch our students before there is more loss and decline.

Measurable impact. Helping students set, track and achieve academic goals, particularly in reading and mathematics is urgently important. Currently, parents, per Ed Code Section 49069 are allowed to “access” the information in their student’s file, including CALPADS, but what parents know this? And beyond that, the data is not easy to interpret and it does not provide parents and caregivers next steps to ensure student improvement. As state superintendent of public instruction I will implement a statewide assessment data system that is low stakes and strictly for the purpose of student growth, similar to current reading inventory assessments.

This statewide assessment data system will be user-friendly, easy to interpret and will be focused on actions the student and their adults can take to grow skill and increase mastery, just as reading inventory assessments recommend books and readings students can use to grow their reading level.

Third grade is the first time we “test” students in reading. Early intervention and inclusion of student and family is critical. Letting students be part of setting and achieving their reading goals from pre-k through third grade will increase reading scores.

Currently, students take the Smarter Balanced test and do not receive scores until well into the summer, and then there are no programs or supports families can independently utilize if they’re not happy with the scores a student receives. This causes frustration and further disengagement if a student’s score/reading level is “unfavorable.”

Family engagement, investment and empowerment.

Do you believe the state should take a stronger hand in setting policies and options for curriculums for achieving universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should this be left to local control?

The need to improve our third grade reading scores is universally recognized by teachers. When we implement policing policies the focus turns towards “accountability” … test scores, and we forget about the true purpose: the students we’re supposed to be focused on. As teachers, we are focused on our students – everyday. There needs to be a collective – teachers, administrators, and most importantly families – effort to set expectations, policies and curricula.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade?

As state superintendent of public instruction, I will ensure that local stakeholders, districts and local education agencies are supported in creating and executing their own timely, data-driven four-year expanded plan to support kindergartners. The planning process and plans themselves will come through a transparent platform of communication from the school districts via smaller, local sub-commissions (comprised of stakeholders and literacy experts) – keeping the districts accountable to the students (specific, measured and named specifically), teachers, families, and community supporters (who are on the ground supporting as part of the local plan).

Should the state increase its funding for resources to improve early literacy, such as the $500 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and reading specialists for teachers in elementary schools?

I believe funds should be used to serve students directly as opposed to training teachers and providing coaching. We as teachers go through extensive training in order to teach and are continuously working to better serve our students. Lifting the load with teachers by providing direct services, tools and supports to students (with their teacher’s guidance) will amplify our impact.

Tony Thurmond

Incumbent state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: Tony Thurmond is the 28th and current California state superintendent of public instruction. Superintendent Thurmond is running for re-election in 2022 to help students heal from the pandemic, recover from learning loss, making sure California students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, and transforming California schools to tend to all of our students’ needs. Learn more at TonyThurmond.com

Are you happy with third-grade reading test scores in California? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

The state of California has the opportunity to reach an important milestone for students that has eluded students in this nation for decades, literacy by third grade. Reading is a gateway skill that propels students. When students learn to read, they can read to learn anything. Sadly, however, students who don’t learn to read by third grade are at greater risk of dropping out of school and potentially end up in the criminal justice system.

Available data shows that California students are about 50% proficient in reading as measured by test scores, with lower rates of proficiency for students with disabilities, Black students and English learners. Recent studies indicate that reading loss has grown during the pandemic.

Studies have shown that by age 3, children from lower-income homes will have heard millions fewer words than children from wealthier homes; we know that to achieve reading by third grade, we must start well before third grade. I am currently leading efforts to implement a universal preschool program so all 4-year-olds in our state can attend preschool.

I am also pursuing legislation that would provide California school districts with up to $3 billion in resources to reduce chronic absenteeism in recognition of the detrimental effects that chronic absenteeism has on student success, including learning to read by third grade.

During the fall of 2021, I named a task force focused on reaching literacy by third grade and bi-literacy goals to provide students with the resources they need to reach this objective. The task force brings together some of the top literacy researchers, practitioners, and advocates in the state who are helping California build out a statewide approach to helping all students achieve literacy within the next four years.

I am currently pursuing legislation that grows from the task force to expand dual language immersion programs and Freedom School programs (evidenced-based Afrocentric literacy intervention) and family and home visitor-based literacy programs to help families build a love for reading at home. I am also working on expanding the availability of reading coaches and specialists at schools in need and overseeing billions in professional learning dollars to help teachers support student achievement, including literacy.

Furthermore, I am working to help students and families develop a love for reading. To that end, I am working to provide 1 million books to students in need and to expand library access for California students and families. I also have provided California families with 5 million free books downloaded in English, Spanish, and French in my first term.

Do you believe the state should take a stronger hand in setting the policies and options for curriculums for achieving universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should this be left to local control?

The California State Board of Education has developed a comprehensive state literacy plan that provides schools with guidance and frameworks on curricula, content standards, professional learning, and other elements for supporting student literacy. The state oversees various literacy development grants and has provided funding to expand early screening for dyslexia and build interventions for supporting other struggling readers.

My goal is to help the state build out its capacity for supporting literacy at the state level. Our approach to meet this goal includes ensuring school districts have access to reading specialists to guide the work at the district level and establishing a new state literacy coordinator position at CDE who can assist and coordinate literacy efforts statewide.

Moreover, this approach will help the state enhance what it offers to schools by strengthening coordination of state efforts and access to more professional learning, curricula, and resources that are proven to support student literacy.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade?

Districts need to be provided with steady resources to increase student proficiency in reading. In addition, schools need to have more support, so classroom teachers have time to work with students in small groupings according to their needs to help them make gains in literacy.

I am in the process of asking every local education agency in our state to commit to reaching literacy by third grade. Hundreds of LEAs have signed a pledge and committed to achieving literacy by third grade. Currently, we are in the process of identifying the technical assistance that LEAs will need to reach these goals.

Should the state increase its funding for resources to improve early literacy like the $500 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and reading specialists for teachers in elementary schools?

Yes, the state should increase funding for schools to have access to literacy coaches and reading specialists. I have been advocating for getting these proposed allocations in the state budget approved. I have spoken to teachers and school leaders who have identified the need for designated coaches and specialists to be available to support the students with the greatest literacy needs in our state. These resources are proven and will make a difference in helping students reach literacy by the third grade.

George Yang

Candidate for state superintendent of public instruction

Candidate biography: George Yang, software architect and father of two school-age children. I came to California 30 years ago at age 15. I am running for the superintendent of public education to infuse new solutions that will empower parents and invigorate students. Check out my plan to use existing funding to build an after-school program that will let children try arts, sports, vocational skills, and discover their passion. I believe children who are excited about learning learn better.    Website: yang2022.com

Learn more here.

Did not respond to questions.

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  1. Sue D 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Thank you!!! Your questions were perfect at allowing me to understand what perspective the candidates take toward issues and their knowledge of what is needed! Although many candidates had good knowledge of our children’s developmental needs only one candidate showed actual knowledge of what is happening on the state level. Thank you for your platform 🙂

  2. Amy Burkes 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Thank you for this article it was very helpful.

  3. Paul List 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Which of the candidates oppose Critical Race Theory?

    Replies

    • Nat 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Define critical race theory

  4. cheri rae 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    How I wish this race had early, extensive coverage and real debate about how reading instruction is linked to every other aspect of education. The incumbent will likely win, and California’s children will suffer the consequences of continuing reading instructional approaches that are so detrimental to developing literacy in our public schools.

  5. Julie Gerien 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I wish this article had come out sooner. I already voted 🙁

  6. Ann 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Ok, so we now know nothing will change.