Reading Scores Improve at California’s Lowest-Performing Schools Following Targeted Intervention

A recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education has shown impressive results from California’s $53 million investment in early literacy programs. The study found that the percentage of third-graders in the program who met or nearly met the state’s reading standards increased by 6 percentage points compared to similar schools. Mark Rosenbaum, the attorney behind the lawsuit that led to the creation of the program, commented on the speed and effectiveness of the results, especially given the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The program was established in 2020 as part of a settlement for a lawsuit filed by Morrison Foerster and Public Counsel. The lawsuit highlighted the low literacy rates among California students, particularly those who are Black, Latino, and low-income, and the negative consequences they face. Research has shown that students who struggle with reading in fourth grade are more likely to drop out of school and engage in risky behavior.

Under the settlement, California allocated $50 million for literacy programs in the state’s 75 worst-performing elementary schools. The majority of the funding was used for teacher training, hiring classroom aides, and purchasing books. However, districts had flexibility in how they used the funds to address their specific needs.

Many districts chose to adopt phonics-based curricula, which focus on language comprehension and phonics instruction. This approach, known as the “science of reading,” has gained support in recent years. Previously, most schools in California used a balanced literacy approach that incorporated phonics but also emphasized whole-word recognition.

The Stanford study is significant because it provides evidence of the effectiveness of the science of reading approach. The before-and-after results demonstrated by similar schools over time support the notion that targeted and well-designed interventions can make a significant difference.

Becky Sullivan, the English language arts director at the Sacramento County Office of Education, oversees the block grant program for the targeted schools. She expressed pride in the hard work of the schools and teachers involved, citing the positive impact on the lives of approximately 15,000 students across the state.

One success story from the program is Joshua Elementary in Lancaster, which was among the schools selected for the grant. With the help of grant funds, the district implemented a new literacy curriculum focused on the science of reading, provided training for teachers, and supplied new reading materials. As a result, the number of third-graders meeting the state’s reading standards nearly doubled, and further improvements are expected.

Another example is Bel Air Elementary in Bay Point, which used its $1 million grant to hire reading specialists, implement a phonics-based curriculum, track student progress, and provide teacher training. The principal at the time, Robert Humphrey, witnessed the transformation firsthand, with students displaying enthusiasm for reading and improvements in behavior and morale. However, Humphrey is concerned about funding for the reading specialists once the grant money runs out.

The California Department of Education has introduced a new program called Literacy Coaches and Reading Specialists to provide additional funding for schools. The program, authorized by Assembly Bill 181, will allocate $500 million to approximately 800 schools statewide. However, many schools are still in need of funding to implement the science of reading effectively. Rosenbaum, the attorney involved in the lawsuit, believes that the promising results of the Stanford study should lead to the expansion of similar programs nationwide.

In summary, California’s investment in early literacy programs has produced significant results, demonstrating the effectiveness of targeted interventions focused on the science of reading. The success stories from schools involved in the program highlight the importance of ongoing funding and support to ensure continued progress in improving literacy rates.

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