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California education system falters in preparing students for the future


New assembly bill aims to change dynamic

The education system in California has been lackluster, notably demonstrated by students performing below grade level in reading and math. The issue has become a glaring focus for state education officials

According to a policy briefing co-authored by the EdVoice Institute last year, it reported that six out of 10 children can't read by third grade. This has led Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, 13 bipartisan co-authors, sponsored by EdVoice, Decoding Dyslexia CA, and Families in School, to introduce Assembly Bill 2222 to the Assembly Education Committee. It is an “early literacy” legislative package designed to raise awareness of the severity of early literacy problems and ensure a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to teaching all California elementary school students how to read.

"If there is one primary responsibility of the public elementary school, it is to teach children to read so they may have a future filled with opportunity," said Marshall Tuck, EdVoice CEO and Sponsor of the bill. "We now know how to best teach children to read because of interdisciplinary research known as the Science of Reading. It's time we require this evidence-based approach to early literacy instruction in every California classroom. We are grateful to Assemblywoman Rubio for championing a child's right to read," said Tuck. 

The EdVoice Institute for Research and Education (EdVoice Institute), was created in 2006 as a sister organization to EdVoice, a 501(c)(4) established in 2000 by a group of educational philanthropists. 

The purpose is to ensure that low-income students receive a high-quality education that prepares them for college, career, and life. 

To do so, they leverage deep expertise in education with more than 20 partner organizations to provide EdVoice, state legislators, school leaders, and the general public with evidence-based recommendations grounded in their comprehensive policy agenda.

The bill requires updates to state-adopted English language arts(ELA), English language development, and reading instructional materials. In addition, the bill calls for professional development for elementary educators in evidence-based literacy instructions that adhere to the science of reading. The bill will improve accountability in teacher preparation programs related to new literacy teaching standards and support professional development for teacher preparation. The science of reading follows evidence from a large body of interdisciplinary research that guides effective classroom practices benefitting all students, including English learners. These practices include a systematic focus on phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, oral language development, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.

A culture and system change in California's education has been ongoing for years with mixed results. In 2022, Edsource reported that California fourth graders trail the nation in reading, and half of its third graders, including two-thirds of Black students and 61% of Latino students, do not read at grade level.

“We’re just not seeing that same level of involvement and intensity that other states have had,” said Linda Diamond, a retired executive for a California-based reading improvement firm that tracks literacy legislation and teacher preparation programs. The report stated that California ranked near the bottom nationally in literacy that year. 

“Most of the curriculum in California classrooms is low quality and years out of date,” Arun Ramanathan, the CEO of Pivot Learning, said. “It is irresponsible for districts to wait for the state to complete its endless adoption process when districts can use their federal Covid relief funding to buy up-to-date math and English materials and professional development for their teachers right now.”

California State Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio shares the same sentiment with educators, as the current climate of the system is making things hard for students and teachers alike. "As an educator, I have firsthand knowledge of the struggles instructors face to ensure their students know how to read," Rubio said. "California teachers work tirelessly to better the success of each student. However, California is failing its students, especially diverse students from low-income families. California must address this social inequity by following decades of interdisciplinary research showing students how to develop strong literacy skills. AB2222 will set our students and educators up for success by equipping them with evidence-based resources."

The changes made to the curriculum include the introduction of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), a structured literacy elementary school curriculum with a high rating on EdReports, which evaluates school materials. The district chose CKLA because it “provides explicit, systematic, and cumulative foundational skills instruction.”

This has seen a mixed bag of results for the 2022-2023 academic year as many schools were still recovering from the effects of Covid-19, as math and English results show slight cases dropped — with 46.7% of students meeting or exceeding the standards for reading and writing compared to 47.1% the previous year.

 “Our vulnerable students continue to face those largest gaps in literacy and numeracy,” LAUSD Board Member Kelly Gonez said after a presentation of the district’s test scores.

Another program added to the LAUSD curriculum in 2023 was the Primary Promise program. Primary Promise used small group instruction to help struggling K-3 students master basic reading and math skills. The pilot for the program started in 2022 when 2,500 first graders throughout LAUSD were selected after only 9% were reading at grade level on a commonly used diagnostic assessment, DIBELS.

Within 14 weeks, 42% of these students were reading at grade level, the same portion as their peers who were not in Primary Promise. In just one semester, one-third of students in the program had improved to grade level, an unprecedented increase. 

But teachers don't see how this will help students in the long run. “I worry about this cycle of remediation that we often get, I believe, in this school district, and not setting a strong enough foundation, districtwide, for students to be proficient readers,” said board member Kelly Gonez at a recent meeting during which district officials presented the new program. 

"We are putting a bandaid on a wound that needs surgery," Rubio said when examining programs created to help but are making minimal progress. "The system has been a mess long before COVID-19, and it is not getting any better going in the direction school officials are continuing." Rubio references her family struggles as she grew up in a low-income home with parents who didn't speak English, which made things hard for her and her siblings growing up trying to navigate the school system. 

Rubio's brother was misdiagnosed and put in a special needs class after school officials determined that was the best course of action, but what the evaluators didn't take into consideration was the language barrier, as the once young boy didn't speak or understand English. It took three years before Rubio's brother Robert was placed in the proper classes, but the emotional damage was already done.

"His self-esteem was at an all-time low, and he was behind academically, which didn't help at all, and it led to him eventually dropping out of school later in the future," Rubio said as she continued speaking on the system. "There has been minimal progress, and that needs to change. We have to create strategies sustainable and effective for kids no matter the issue; 40% of kids being able to read is unacceptable." 

For low-income Black students, English learners, and students with disabilities, the gaps widen with only two in 10 students(three in 10 for Latinos) in each respective group on grade level in ELA by third grade. 

" This is not just an education issue, it's a social justice issue," said Megan Potente, Co-State Director of Decoding Dyslexia CA. "Early learning gaps all too often turn into life-long opportunity gaps. The path to ending adult illiteracy and ensuring opportunity for all starts with effective early literacy instruction. We call on our elected leaders to take immediate action on comprehensive early literacy legislation given the urgency of the crisis," added Potente.