Reading policies are sweeping statehouses across the US. Fueled by the “Mississippi Miracle” of dramatically improved fourth grade reading scores, especially for Black and low-income students, states are considering or have already passed legislation to drive new reading programs in their schools. Most go under the banner of the “science of reading.”
California has not joined the trend. Despite a true reading crisis — with 58% of all third graders reading below grade level, including 75% of low-income Black and Latino students — there are no bills calling for improved curriculum, in-service teacher training or other science of reading supports. Even a basic measure like Senate Bill 691 for universal dyslexia risk screening (a standard practice in 40 states) draws opposition from the powerful California Teachers Association and no support from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But in the last three years, some prominent school districts have decided not to wait for the state. Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Palo Alto Unified (where I am a school board member) have each made early literacy a top priority, established specific goals, invested in training their teachers and moved to adopt more effective reading programs. And they are starting to show results.
LA Unified has been quietly changing its reading program since 2020. Thousands of LAUSD elementary teachers, reading specialists and administrators have received training in proven programs for reading foundational skills (such as Orton Gillingham and LETRS), and more continue to be trained.
Los Angeles Unified has adopted Core Knowledge Language Arts, a program well-aligned with the science of reading, in about half its schools. And it has boosted more intensive interventions for struggling readers (including older students), investing to expand its network of reading specialists in high-need schools under its successful Primary Promise program.
As Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explained at last year’s California Reading Summit, “I believe that if we are going to follow the science, then we should really embrace all science, including the science of reading. We cannot afford to be selective in which science we focus on. That includes training kindergarten-to-third grade teachers in effective reading practices.”
Palo Alto Unified launched its Every Student Reads Initiative in 2021, bringing an “all-in” approach to improve shockingly low reading performance for the district’s low-income students. All Transitional kindergarten to third-grade teachers, reading specialists and principals received structured literacy training for Tier 1 foundational skills. New curriculum replaced the long-used Lucy Calkins Units of Study, along with new phonics materials and decodable books.
A new assessment tool, iReady, replaced the Fountas & Pinnell running record assessment. iReady was also used as a dyslexia screener, with all students screened annually in grades K-2. Monthly principal professional learning committee, or PLC, meetings focused on early literacy, with teaching support provided for all elementary schools.
The initiative has been championed by Superintendent Don Austin, along with the district’s first-ever director of literacy instruction, Danae Reynolds. Austin shared frequent updates with the board and the entire school community, keeping the spotlight on the effort throughout the school year.
San Francisco Unified is not as far along, but it has already made significant commitments to changing its reading programs. Based on an external curriculum and instruction audit, the district will replace its Lucy Calkins curriculum; the new curriculum will be chosen next year. San Francisco Unified has also announced that a new reading assessment tool will replace the long-used Fountas & Pinnell assessment, which the district found did not correlate with student achievement.
None of these districts have adopted scripted curricula, 90-minute phonics blocks or “one size fits all” approaches that concern some about “science of reading” aligned programs.
All three districts have strong support from the top. Each district’s board of education has declared early literacy a top priority and set specific improvement goals for third grade reading over the next several years; Palo Alto has even set goals for specific student subgroups. These goals are enshrined in key documents like LAUSD’s Strategic Plan, the Palo Alto Promise, and the San Francisco Unified Vision and Goals, and receive regular board review. The focus isn’t just on effort; it’s on results.
While the initiatives are all still young, results so far are promising. Palo Alto was named the state’s most improved district on the California Reading Report Card, with a 9-point increase in low-income Latino students reading at grade level compared to an average decline of 8 points in districts across the state. Overall, the district hit its first-year goals for every subgroup.
Los Angeles Unified, which began its changes before the pandemic, saw meaningful increases in both fourth and eighth grade reading on the 2022 NAEP, a national test of student achievement — a sharp contrast from significantly lower scores across the U.S. According to former Superintendent Austin Beutner, “Literacy is the holy grail of public education, and the Primary Promise [reading program] is the biggest story of what we did.”
These districts aren’t alone. Others, such as Lancaster Elementary (LA County), Lodi (San Joaquin), Pajaro Valley (Santa Cruz), and Twin Rivers (Sacramento) are also making strides, not waiting for state leadership or funding.
But in a state with an early literacy crisis, can we afford to wait for 1,000 local school districts to change their programs one at a time? If we want state-level impact, only a comprehensive statewide program — with state-level guidance, funding and accountability, and vocal support from state leaders — will give California’s 6 million students what they need to succeed.
Todd Collins is a Palo Alto Unified school board member and organizer of the California Reading Coaltion.
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Janine 1 month ago1 month ago
Mr. Collins – I see that Palo Alto used Lucy Caulkins…what new curriculum did your district replace it with?
Brenda Lebsack - State Delegate of Teachers Union 1 month ago1 month ago
Excellent article. Thank you, Trustee Collins. We need more board members like you who do what's best for students, rather than take orders from the Teacher Union Honchos. As a state delegate of the CTA, it's no surprise to me that the California Teachers' Association opposed SB 691. When I attended my first NEA convention in July 2022, I saw firsthand that academics is the last priority of our union. … Read More
Excellent article. Thank you, Trustee Collins. We need more board members like you who do what’s best for students, rather than take orders from the Teacher Union Honchos. As a state delegate of the CTA, it’s no surprise to me that the California Teachers’ Association opposed SB 691. When I attended my first NEA convention in July 2022, I saw firsthand that academics is the last priority of our union. The top priority is turning classrooms into a political training ground. I wrote an article about my experience here. https://timcast.com/news/opinion-preferred-pronouns-and-more-what-i-saw-at-the-nea-teachers-union-convention/
I agree with you when you say the focus of successful literacy programs is not on effort but instead on results. However the National Teachers Union wants to remove objective measurements from public education, such as standardized testing, and wants our focus to be on Social Emotional Learning and “good feelings.” I’m all for positive morale, but public education is becoming like the archer who draws the target around wherever the arrow lands. Due to the union’s strong influence, we have forgotten our main mission. Instead of having accountability to the taxpayers who fund public education, the union wants to remove accountability by calling objective measurements socially unjust or racist.
Pamela Cohen, thank you for that information about LAUSD. Besides the displacement of 300+ teachers of an effective literacy program, LAUSD also refused to put back into the classroom excellent seasoned teachers who refused to be vaccinated, either due to religious or medical reasons. These teachers are being treated like second class citizens and are only allowed to teach on-line with no direct contact with students. A lawsuit is pending for this discriminatory treatment, especially since these many teachers were not allowed to return to their classrooms, while the district disingenuously complained about a teacher shortage.
Discarding these excellent teachers, to me, shows there’s another agenda at play in public education. That’s why Trustees like Todd Collins are essential.
Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago
I have to give massive kudos to the EdSource team for their relentless focus on literacy. Please consider a small donation to this invaluable education online communication resource! It is more than heartening to recognize how individual school districts like Palo Alto are shifting to an evidence based literacy approach. However, without strong support from educational leaders like Tony Thurmond and Linda Darling Hammond, there is a real danger that the momentum for evidence-based literacy will … Read More
I have to give massive kudos to the EdSource team for their relentless focus on literacy. Please consider a small donation to this invaluable education online communication resource!
It is more than heartening to recognize how individual school districts like Palo Alto are shifting to an evidence based literacy approach.
However, without strong support from educational leaders like Tony Thurmond and Linda Darling Hammond, there is a real danger that the momentum for evidence-based literacy will slowly fade as do most educational initiatives. Where are the much needed commentaries from Thurmond and Darling-Hammond. Why are they missing in action? Truly a travesty!
The leaders should be advocating for a valid and reliable early literacy assessment system that can be used to monitor student progress in the achievement of early literacy benchmarks in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Resultant data should be used to monitor how well individual students are staying on track for reaching benchmarks in these reading elements. Teachers need to be trained in how to intervene to support students not on track. We cannot afford to wait until 3rd grade to find out who is literate.
Classrooms, grade levels, schools , and districts should regularly report aggregate and disaggregated early literacy data as both a monitoring and accountability tool. Data should be made public regularly to make sure that all students are on track to be readers by 3rd grade.
We should no longer depend on amateur-hour assessments like Fountas and Pinnell that uses letters rather than scale scores and does not even guarantee equal increments of literacy growth between their useless letters!
As Thomas Kuhn taught us in the Structure of Scientific Revolution, there is a burgeoning paradigm shift in reading curricula, pedagogy, and assessment. Let us not let this opportunity evaporate within the toxic K-12 culture of self over service and loyalty over competence.
Power to the families and students who must ultimately lead this literacy revolution.
Pamela Cohen 1 month ago1 month ago
Mr. Collins, you should be applauded for the work you are doing in Palo Alto. As an LAUSD educator and member of the LAUSD Dyslexia Workgroup, I however need to make you aware that our current Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is severely cutting the effective pull-out small group intervention that was the Primary Promise program. This will undermine the gains you cite in your article. Primary Promise teachers at 300+ elementary schools will lose their … Read More
Mr. Collins, you should be applauded for the work you are doing in Palo Alto. As an LAUSD educator and member of the LAUSD Dyslexia Workgroup, I however need to make you aware that our current Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is severely cutting the effective pull-out small group intervention that was the Primary Promise program. This will undermine the gains you cite in your article. Primary Promise teachers at 300+ elementary schools will lose their positions and the relationships they have established at their schools. They can reapply for the 110 positions that will be reopened at “priority schools”, and have to begin their work again with a new group of students, leaving behind the many other struggling readers throughout our District.
It is unfortunate that the Superintendent has chosen to defund one of the most effective literacy interventions programs LAUSD has ever had, and stifle the gains made since 2020. Our children suffer as a result.
Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago
Rather then expend enormous funds to intervene to support so many students failing reading, it would be much better to improve the core reading system so that intervention triage would not be needed!
Measure twice. Cut once.
DGK 1 month ago1 month ago
Unfortunately, Primary Promise has been gutted going from about 400 to 100 teachers.
Michelle Griffin 1 month ago1 month ago
Some retired teachers hit with large bills for “overpayment debt.” Great article long overdue impacting CalPERS staff as well for several many years. In order to avoid a class action lawsuit all hearings would have to be declined for the state’s protection.
Olivia 1 month ago1 month ago
Thank you for keeping up with this! As a parent with a son with a learning disability. I can't wait till Monterey County gets with the Science of Reading. So unfortunate that we had to go to Due Process to get it for our son but more is needed. It is not just my son but many more that will benefit from this instruction. This is an urgency that more parents and school administrators need … Read More
Thank you for keeping up with this! As a parent with a son with a learning disability. I can’t wait till Monterey County gets with the Science of Reading. So unfortunate that we had to go to Due Process to get it for our son but more is needed. It is not just my son but many more that will benefit from this instruction. This is an urgency that more parents and school administrators need to push for every child. Not just for lower grades but for those kids that did get left behind (4th to 12th grades).
Todd Collins 1 month ago1 month ago
On Monterey County – the County Office of Education has started promoting science of reading throughout the County. In fact on Saturday they hosted their latest Science of Reading Academy – https://twitter.com/p12innovation/status/1647308451989843968