COMMENTARY: A comprehensive reading plan is the only way to address our early literacy crisis

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

An elementary student reads a book to himself during class.

California has a state-level crisis in teaching reading. It poses an existential threat to our economy, to social justice, and to our democracy itself. Patchwork solutions won’t fix it – we need a comprehensive state-level plan to improve reading results.

The facts on California’s student reading achievement are grim:

  • Two out of three of low-income Latino 3rd graders are below grade level in reading. For low-income Black students, it is three out of four. These groups make up half of all California students – more than three million children.
  • On the NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, half of all California low-income 4th graders score “Below Basic,” the lowest level of achievement. Even for higher-income students, less than half are scored “Proficient.” For Black students, scores have not improved for 15 years.
  • As Pedro Noguera and Bruce Fuller noted a few weeks ago, 4th graders in Los Angeles Unified, just 9 or 10 years old, are already two years behind their similarly diverse peers in Miami. Even more shocking, these lagging Los Angeles Unified students achieve well above their peers in districts like San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento.

All these results are from before two years of Covid disruption, where many of California’s largest districts offered long bouts of remote instruction. The situation is certainly worse today. And the damage is likely permanent: a student who struggles with reading after 3rd grade will almost certainly struggle in school and in life.

So it is timely that State Superintendent Tony Thurmond created a task force to focus on the early literacy crisis. His stated goal is a good one: that every student be reading at grade level by 3rd grade.

Unfortunately, his proposed solutions are nowhere near up to the task. They are the typical patchwork of spending and programs – library cards, free e-books, grants for dual language programs – that have been applied, over and over, to a system that fails to teach reading to the students who need our schools the most.

But what else can we do? While we can continue to pour in funding, is this the best we can expect, especially for low-income students?

Other states have taken a very different approach – they have created comprehensive state-level reading plans to change their education system. And they’ve gotten results.

Mississippi is a shining example. Ten years ago, Mississippi was in the bottom quarter of all states. With little to lose, they took bold action, launching a comprehensive state literacy plan, with the help of the Barksdale Reading Institute.

By 2019, Mississippi was in the top five of all states for 4th grade reading for both Black and Latino students. Adjusted for their high-poverty demographics, they rose to second in the nation in reading achievement – ahead of traditional education elites like Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Other states have taken a similar approach: Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona all have sustained and comprehensive state early literacy plans, and many more states have taken steps to get there.

What are the elements of a comprehensive plan? They include:

Teacher Development for Reading

  • Required training for all K-3 teachers in effective reading instruction from an approved list of research-aligned programs
  • Embedded highly-trained literacy coaches, funded and in some cases provided directly by the state and county offices
  • Alignment of teacher preparation programs with the requirements for evidence-based instruction, as already required by state law

High Quality Curriculum

  • High-quality evidence-based instructional materials for general (Tier 1) instruction, chosen by districts from an approved state list
  • Similar requirements for (Tiers 2 and 3) reading interventions to also be high quality and evidence-based

Screening and Assessments

  • Universal K-2 screening for reading challenges, including dyslexia
  • Annual reading assessments for all students K-5, reported to the state and the district community

Planning and Notification

  • Individualized Reading Improvement Plans for students deemed at risk of falling behind
  • Required notification and engagement of families with children with reading plans

Above all, we need our state leaders to make sustained reading progress a top state-level priority. Without that visible commitment, any plan will be “just another initiative,” with little sustained impact.

To succeed, a state initiative needs to focus the attention and change the practices across almost 6,000 elementary schools and 75,000 K-3 classrooms. This mammoth effort requires visible and ongoing commitment from all our leaders: Governor Newsom, State Board of Education President Darling-Hammond, State Superintendent Thurmond, and our leading legislators. If they don’t make reading a top state priority, neither will schools.

Governor Newson has focused this year on addressing “existential threats” to Californians’ well-being, including Covid, climate change, and housing. The failure to teach California’s three million low-income students to be effective readers is the ultimate existential threat — it undercuts our goals for our economy, social justice, and democracy itself.

We need a bold and comprehensive state reading plan, with an equally audacious set of goals, to secure the future we all want to see.


Todd Collins is a Palo Alto Unified school board member and organizer of the California Reading Coaltion.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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