Saturday, May 18, 2024
58.3 F

    Latest Posts

    Two Visions of America by Don Jans

    California’s Literacy Crisis


    By Will Swaim

    Last week, we highlighted the debate over California’s new math framework for K-12 public schools that has been lambasted by STEM professionals and academics statewide. This week, we’re sharing a new issue brief by CPC Research Manager Sheridan Swanson on the Golden State’s literacy crisis because the state’s math and literacy failures go hand in hand.

    What follows is a summary of Swanson’s brief, but we recommend you take the time to read her report in its entirety. If you’re a parent concerned about the reading curriculum in your school district, Swanson includes steps you can take to advocate for your child.

    For decades, teachers, parents, academics, scientists, and curriculum developers have been locked in a tug-of-war about how reading instruction should be implemented. These “reading wars” have had lifelong consequences for a generation of students who have been unwitting casualties of the battle.

    In California, the result is a staggering number of public school students who cannot read at grade level and may never be functionally literate for the rest of their lives.

    California’s fourth grade reading scores are tied for 32nd place in the nation — despite an education budget amounting to over $21,000 per student each year. Shockingly, less than half (47.1 percent) of all public school students in California met state grade-level English Language Arts (ELA) standards during the 2021-22 school year.

    The reading scores of Black and Hispanic students are even worse. Across grade levels last year, only 30.3 percent of Black students and 36.4 percent of Hispanic students in California met grade-level ELA standards.

    Even as early as third grade, just 42.2 percent of California students met ELA standards. This is particularly heart-wrenching since research shows that students who lack reading proficiency by the end of third grade are likely to face long-term challenges.

    In 2022, education reporter Emily Hanford released a groundbreaking, must-listen-to podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, exposing the history of the literacy crisis. Many listeners were shocked at what they learned.

    A case in point: California parent Kenni Alden told Hanford that her son was a struggling reader at 12 years old. “He omits words,” Alden explained. “He’ll substitute a word…and just cruise right on.”

    Alden’s son learned bad reading habits in his public school — habits very difficult to break. Instead of looking at the letters to read words, he is stuck in a guessing game because he doesn’t have the skills to decode what the actual words are. Alden considered sending her son to a different school in their hometown of Berkeley, but soon discovered that all the schools in the area taught the same reading methods.

    Why are kids having to guess at what words say?

    It’s the catastrophic result of reading approaches California implemented in the 1980s based on flawed theories advanced by Horace Mann, Kenneth Goodman, and Marie Clay.

    Mann perceived phonics as boring, and advocated for a reading approach called whole word: children should learn to read by looking at whole words as units, instead of decoding those words by reading the letters. This means a student has to memorize a word in order to read it in the future.

    There’s a major problem with whole word reading. In English, words are made of phonemes — units of sound that convey meaning —  and are represented with letters. This is why it’s important to teach children phonics: so they understand the relationship between sounds and letters.

    Learning to decode words by “sounding out” the letters does not come naturally for most children. We know this from the “science of reading,” the decades-old cognitive science of how we learn to read where phonics instruction plays a central role. But teaching phonics was the accepted strategy for reading instruction long before then; the 1690 New England Primer, for instance, was phonics-based.

    It wasn’t until “reformers” like Mann that phonics was replaced with unproven methods. Mann’s misguided opinion was the precursor to the whole language theory, which emphasizes that children should focus on the meaning of a whole sentence or story, rather than the meaning of individual words.

    In the 1960s, American education professor Kenneth Goodman and New Zealand teacher Marie Clay were influential figures who advanced whole language reading. Goodman believed that when learning to read, a student should use “cues” to surmise what a word might be. While the letters in the word might be one cue, the context and structure of the sentence are other cues, along with illustrations.

    By the 1980s, Clay’s cue-based program, called Reading Recovery, was being implemented throughout America.

    The Impact in California

    Hanford explains in Sold a Story that under state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, “reading scores tanked” in California during the 1980s after the state “had gone all-in” on the whole language approach. In 1996, Honig admitted that whole language is “a second-rate strategy that will mean that they’re slow readers for the rest of their life.”

    By the mid-1990s, there was a wealth of evidence that whole word and whole language methods don’t align with how the human brain learns to read. So, in the late 90s and into the 2000s, California funded teacher training and pro-phonics textbooks aligned with the research that shows kids need explicit phonics instruction.

    In fact, phonics instruction prevailed in California by the early 2000s, but its success was short-lived. Some educators advocated for a return to whole language. This led to the push for balanced literacy, which began in California and supposedly blends phonics with cueing and whole language.

    During the 2000s and 2010s, problematic balanced literacy curricula were being adopted throughout the nation and California. These include Units of Study by Lucy Calkins, and Leveled Literacy Intervention by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. But balanced literacy wasn’t the solution its proponents claimed it would be.

    Sabrina Causey, a first grade teacher in Oakland Unified who used a balanced literacy curriculum, told EdSource that the lessons “didn’t make sense.” She said her students “didn’t know letters or sounds. These kids had no basic skills. So [she] had one kid who could read that year” with a balanced literacy curriculum. Only one. 

    It’s estimated that tens of millions of American students were taught to read with Calkins’ program. Sadly, as the evidence mounted that the phonics component in her curriculum was inadequate, Calkins admitted that the cueing strategies taught in Units of Study were misguided. “All of us are imperfect,” she said, adding that “what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.”

    Margaret Goldberg, hired by Oakland Unified School District as a teacher in 2015, describes her experience using Leveled Literacy Intervention. She observed a first grade student say a sentence completely different from the words on the page; he was relying on the pictures since he could not decode the words. Still, he “breezed right through it, unaware that he hadn’t read the sentence on the page.”

    Goldberg realized that “lots” of students were in the same boat. She switched to a phonics-based curriculum called Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words. The result? Goldberg’s students became proficient readers.

    Indeed, the impact of balanced literacy in California schools has been devastating on an incalculable scale. As Austin Beutner, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, explains, “A generation of kids got sold down the river.”

    Looking Forward 

    Today, California does not have a comprehensive literacy strategy. While the state adopted a list of pre-approved reading curricula in 2015, the California Reading Coalition reports that, in 2020-21, only five out of California’s 331 largest school districts used curriculum aligned with the science of reading.

    Last year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said he would reconvene a Task Force on Early Literacy amidst criticism that the state has not done enough to develop a cohesive, statewide plan to address the literacy crisis.

    Let’s save Thurmond some time: The National Council on Teacher Quality reports that more than 90 percent of all students could learn to read if they had access to teachers who employed scientifically-based phonics reading instruction.

    Thankfully, local school boards don’t have to wait on Thurmond’s “Task Force” for answers. They have the authority to implement a proven phonics curriculum in their district that will actually teach students to read.

    California has no time to waste.

    You can read CPC Research Manager Sheridan Swanson’s full issue brief here

    The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Citizens Journal


    - Advertisement -
    0 0 votes
    Article Rating
    Notify of

    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments

    Latest Posts


    Don't Miss


    To receive the news in your inbox

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x