California Pushes New Efforts to Boost Early Reading Skills

Ali Tadayon, San Jose Inside   ·   Link to Article

State education leaders say hiring more literacy coaches and specialists to work with both teachers and students is a key to getting all students to read by the third grade by 2026.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond set that 2026 goal last fall and assembled a task force of educators, parents and education experts to recommend policies to improve years of low reading scores throughout California

At a virtual hearing March 30, Thurmond, State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond and other educators pledged to continue lobbying for funding for literacy coaches and specialists as the state budget process plays out. They also expressed support for literacy initiatives included in three bills already proposed in the State Assembly and Senate.

Literacy coaches mainly train teachers and school staff on literacy instruction, conduct professional development and facilitate whatever reading curriculum the school uses. Specialists work directly with the students in one-on-one or small-group settings.

“I know that reading by third grade has eluded the educational system for many, many years, but this is something we can achieve,” Thurmond said at the hearing.

For years, experts have identified third-grade reading proficiency as an important benchmark in students' overall academic career. Research shows that students who aren't reading at grade level by then will struggle to catch up throughout their education career, and can be at greater risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.

During the 2020-21 school year, 60.21 percent of third-grade students tested below grade level on the state's Smarter Balanced test for English/Language Arts.

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum, representing students who struggled to read, filed a lawsuit against the state in 2017 that resulted in a settlement of $50 million in grants for 75 California elementary schools. Responding to the hearing, he said schools would certainly benefit from more literacy coaches and specialists.

Rosenbaum called the task force's recommendations “a drop in the bucket in terms of what's needed” to get struggling readers the support they need. The state should be held accountable for years of lagging reading scores, he said, which is no reflection on the students themselves.

“This is not the time for piecemeal approaches; this is the time for comprehensive, science-based programs  ... and making sure every school has what they need,” Rosenbaum said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's 2022-23 budget proposal includes $500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists. Thurmond, at the hearing, said it's still too soon to anticipate what the governor will include in his revised budget proposal in May based on adjusted revenue projections. But the superintendent said he will continue to advocate for the reading specialists and coaches.

The task force came to that recommendation based on research from the Learning Policy Institute.which in 2020 published research on seven "positive outlier" districts in the state in which African-American, Latino and white students substantially outperformed their peers on California's state assessments. These districts all provided teachers with extensive coaching and professional development on literacy instruction, according to Learning Institute CEO Darling-Hammond..

All of the districts had a strong emphasis on phonics, phonemic awareness and other reading techniques in kindergarten and first grade, she said. They also fostered "rich literacy environments" with read-alongs, "extensive" speaking and listening opportunities, and grade-level texts that were both culturally responsive and available in multiple languages.

The districts also regularly used assessments, records and other diagnostic tools to measure students' skills. and what needed work. They also routinely made one-on-one tutoring available to students and integrated literacy instruction in all subject areas.

Thurmond said he supports two Assembly bills and a Senate bill proposed by Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland and State Senator Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara. AB 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 to 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.