Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond

While some states and cities like North Carolina, Arkansas and New York City are embracing phonics-based curriculums and teaching practices for early literacy, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said he does not support one particular strategy for California districts.

Still, Thurmond acknowledged in an interview with EdSource that explicit phonics instruction “has a clear place” in his initiative to get all third grade students reading by 2026. Thurmond announced the initiative in September and has named early literacy a top priority.  He assembled a task force of educators and education experts to guide the process.

He acknowledged that California districts may need help assessing reading curriculums and the latest literacy research.

Thurmond said the California Department of Education has proposed bringing more literacy experts to the department who will help districts interpret all the new research and findings about literacy instruction. He identified that as a “high priority” request in the upcoming state budget. 

“We’ve got to build a stronger team of folks who have expertise in literacy and can track all those changes and help districts interpret what those new changes and research means,” he said.

The literacy task force is still building its strategy for reaching that goal. Much of the planning hinges on what resources are made available in the 2022-23 state budget. Thurmond has asked schools to join the initiative but doesn’t foresee the state prescribing one curriculum to help them reach that goal.

Thurmond held a meeting in May to rally districts to commit to his 2026 goal. Near the end of the meeting, after attendees questioned whether the state would require a certain curriculum, Thurmond promised that wouldn’t be the case.

“We know that there are going to be different schools of thought on how you achieve reading by third grade. I promise you, we’re never going to say to you this is the only way that you can get there,” he said at the meeting. “We are not promoting a one-size-fits-all approach in California. That’s been tried before, our state is too large, it’s too diverse.”

New York City, on the other hand, is requiring all elementary schools to adopt one of the education department’s recommended phonics-based curricula for kindergarten through second grade. Several states, including North Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas, have enacted policies in recent years that follow the “science of reading” approach to literacy instruction, which is based on developing research that learning to read is not a natural process and requires a heavy emphasis on phonics in order to teach students to connect letters and sound out words.

“Phonics will certainly play a key role (in the strategy to improve reading and bi-literacy in California). Districts may use different curricula, they may even use different assessments … ” Thurmond told EdSource. “I don’t see anything changing overnight with California being a local control state, but it’s my intent to make sure we provide any resource to districts that could be helpful and best practices that are proven to work.”

Proponents of the Science of Reading approach have called on California to follow suit, accusing state education leaders of not taking responsibility for years of lagging early reading scores.

Requiring districts to include phonics instruction or only allowing them to use certain curricula would require legislation, Thurmond said, and there are no bills currently aimed at doing that.

“We are delving into these issues and building out a better strategy for the state to address literacy, and that involves many people and many entities to come up with a way to help individual districts,” he said.

Thurmond supports Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $500 million proposal over five years to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists and a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally relevant texts for reading instruction. 

Both are included in the governor’s proposed state budget for 2022-23 which is being negotiated with the Legislature and will be finalized by mid-June.

Thurmond said the proposed funding for specialists and coaches is crucial, since he’s heard that districts’ current specialists and coaches have been “pushed into classroom teaching jobs” amid the nationwide teacher shortage.

Aside from the governor’s proposal, lawmakers are considering three bills for programs that the task force recommended. 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 to support biliteracy in schools. SB 952 would also support biliteracy in schools by providing grants to school districts, county offices of education and certain charter schools to create dual language immersion programs.

AB 2498 would establish a three-year pilot to expand Freedom Schools, which are Afrocentric summer literacy and learning-loss mitigation programs.

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  1. John 6 days ago6 days ago

    Phonics is a complicated approach, phonics has different components which one is Mr. Thurmond talking about. A more practical approach to teaching and learning to read and write might include a more explicit balanced technique not to confuse students.

  2. Ann 2 months ago2 months ago

    How is it possible that no decent candidate emerged to run against this guy?

  3. Ann 2 months ago2 months ago

    Insane. This state is doomed. 'interpret all the new research and findings about literacy instruction.' This isn't 'new' research. It's decades old and widely known to be essential for the majority of kids ability to learn to read. '...Newsom’s $500 million proposal over five years to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists and a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally relevant texts for … Read More

    Insane. This state is doomed. ‘interpret all the new research and findings about literacy instruction.’ This isn’t ‘new’ research. It’s decades old and widely known to be essential for the majority of kids ability to learn to read.

    ‘…Newsom’s $500 million proposal over five years to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists and a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally relevant texts for reading instruction’ How about holding our ed schools at state colleges and universities accountable for teaching the science of reading so we don’t have to train at the district level?

    And not mentioned here, Thurmond also plans to hire more ‘experts’ in Sac to implement his critically flawed literacy plans. Home visits, ‘bilingual’ literacy (we’re failing teaching literacy in one language so let’s just claim we’ll do two!) and of course, ‘dual immersion’ which is more a buzz word than a fact when little to no English is taught in elementary school and, in most Spanish is the home language. California has the lowest adult literacy rate in the country due to decades of inadequate reading instruction in our schools.

  4. Jojo 2 months ago2 months ago

    This is a tragedy. More than 60% of California third graders are reading below grade level- if they read it all. Thurmond talks out of both sides of his neck and panders to everyone. The Gov just throws money around for votes. C'mon man, are you telling me that in 2022 there is some super secret formula, methodology, curriculum or approach to teaching a child to read??? Go pound sand. Stop the excuses, do the … Read More

    This is a tragedy. More than 60% of California third graders are reading below grade level- if they read it all. Thurmond talks out of both sides of his neck and panders to everyone. The Gov just throws money around for votes. C’mon man, are you telling me that in 2022 there is some super secret formula, methodology, curriculum or approach to teaching a child to read???

    Go pound sand. Stop the excuses, do the work, take accountability, and for those teachers that don’t perform to standard – find another profession where you will not do harm.

  5. Fabiola 2 months ago2 months ago

    We have the ethical obligation to teach every child to read. It’s not about any program or curriculum. It’s about knowing the science on how the brain learns to read. All teachers need to be trained on these evidence-based practices and how to implement them. Educators need not only the what but also the why behind how to teach students to read. At my school site, we changed our practices to align to the science … Read More

    We have the ethical obligation to teach every child to read. It’s not about any program or curriculum. It’s about knowing the science on how the brain learns to read. All teachers need to be trained on these evidence-based practices and how to implement them. Educators need not only the what but also the why behind how to teach students to read.

    At my school site, we changed our practices to align to the science and have seen drastic changes in student growth/progress. A year later, we have over 75% of our students meeting and exceeding benchmark target goals. This is just the beginning! We are on a trajectory to meet and exceed 95% literacy for all.

  6. JudiAU 2 months ago2 months ago

    Whole language worked well for my children. They had educated parents, rich English language conversation at home, a nanny who read well in English, a large collection of books at home, and trips to the library and a wonderful children’s bookstore. We read to our kids a minimum of one hour a day and included music, poetry, and nonfiction.

    Even with substandard whole language “instruction” they progressed quickly.

    The less advantaged children?

    Not.

  7. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    Tony to districts, “go for what you know, it’s all good.” He continues his “head down” approach to leadership.

  8. Martina Rangel-Ortega 2 months ago2 months ago

    LindaMood-Bell program “Seeing Stars ” is an excellent reading intervention.

  9. Dr. William Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thurmond’s response to the legitimate call for a science-based approach to teaching reading is unprofessional. It would be as if the profession of medicine allowed doctors to continue to use bleeding as a remedy for bacterial diseases. That would be considered malpractice. Balanced Reading is malpractice. In 2019, pre-pandemic only 48% of 3rd graders could read. Only 31% of Black third graders could read. A real problem. No? I guess alchemistic solutions like Balanced Reading … Read More

    Thurmond’s response to the legitimate call for a science-based approach to teaching reading is unprofessional. It would be as if the profession of medicine allowed doctors to continue to use bleeding as a remedy for bacterial diseases. That would be considered malpractice. Balanced Reading is malpractice.

    In 2019, pre-pandemic only 48% of 3rd graders could read. Only 31% of Black third graders could read. A real problem. No? I guess alchemistic solutions like Balanced Reading trump research-based scientific methods.

    So typical of the chaotic K-12 education system to embrace whatever as it relates to reading curricula, pedagogy, and assessments rather than over 20 years of research supporting the science of reading.

    Actually, it is not surprising though as K-12 education is a fog characterized by self over service and loyalty over competence.

    Read The Fog of Education.

  10. Marvi 2 months ago2 months ago

    Our leaders should be more informed. Mindless repetition of the same failed mantra does not impress. We need an leader who is well versed in the Science of Reading. Our children’s futures depend upon it.

  11. Sergio 2 months ago2 months ago

    There have been tens of thousands of studies on reading instruction and early literacy. Why are we having this debate every few year? There are many school districts serving disadvantaged students who have an incredible track record of strong literacy for all students including those in special education, and ELD. Let’s get serious about talking to those professionals and not politicians who muddy the waters the moment they get involved.

  12. P. Boyd 2 months ago2 months ago

    I love that they might fund library cards for every student, but one of the main purposes of school libraries is having a really good collection of books and a librarian to promote literacy & collaborate with teachers right at school–for kids that can’t get to the public library. Please also invest in school libraries to reach even more students!

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago

      Libraries are useless if you have not been taught to read. No?

  13. Paul Muench 2 months ago2 months ago

    Schools could hire parents from the community. Give them a little training in using “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 easy lessons” or something similar. Children can become excellent decoders much earlier than 3rd grade. Then reading becomes fun and the children take over.