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This Is How California Schools Can Better Teach Kids to Read
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Published 2 months ago on
February 15, 2024

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Reading is foundational to learning, but California is not doing well.

A phonics-based system dubbed the “science of reading” has proven effective.

The “whole language” method should be discarded and “science of reading” adopted.


Of all the skills that children may acquire in school, none surpasses reading in importance.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

The ability to read and comprehend what’s read is the key to all other learning, either formal or personal, and the students in California’s schools are not doing well.

Results from the state’s latest academic achievement tests, released last October, revealed that fewer than half met standards in English language skills and scarcely a third met those in mathematics.

California’s overall score in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal government’s program of measuring academic achievement, is equally bleak, ranked seventh from the bottom.

One reason the state fares so poorly is that for decades, California embraced trendy theories of teaching them to read, such as “whole language,” while spurning strong evidence that using phonics, a more traditional method, would produce better results.

‘Reading Wars’ Battleground in California

The conflict, dubbed the “reading wars,” was not confined to California, but the state was one of the major battlegrounds given its size.

Ultimately, phonics-based instruction, recast as “the science of reading,” won out, at least on paper. However, the state has not been insistent on its adoption, and many local school systems have continued to use less effective teaching methods.

Last month, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report on how well states are implementing the science of reading and California achieved only a mediocre score, once again falling behind other states, such as Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama, that many would regard as regressive.

California won plaudits in some areas, such as setting reading standards in teacher training and including skills in its licensing process, but fell behind in requiring ongoing literacy training and overseeing teacher preparation programs to ensure that the science of reading is being stressed.

“In California, only 58% of fourth-grade students can read at a basic level based on the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP),” according to the report. “That number falls precipitously for California’s historically underserved students.

“Students who are not reading at grade level by the time they reach fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, which in turn leads to additional challenges for them as adults: lower lifetime earnings, higher rates of unemployment, and a higher likelihood of entering the criminal justice system.

“These alarming statistics can be largely attributed to inequities in access to effective reading instruction, a problem that strong state policy and bold state leaders can solve.”

Will ‘Science of Reading’ Become a Mandate?

The brighter side of the picture is that within a few months, California will require teacher preparation programs to stress the science of reading with an eye on meeting the state’s new literacy standards.

Newly introduced legislation would make the science of reading mandatory. Without such a mandate, it could take years for full implementation, if ever, because many liberal school districts will continue to resist, falsely believing that phonics are incompatible with educational equity.

California has an odd policy on overseeing what happens in local school systems. It closely monitors their finances and will essentially seize districts that are in danger of becoming insolvent, but takes a more hands-off stance regarding educational outcomes.

Reading is too important to allow local school systems to decide if and when they will adopt the science of reading. As the report on teacher quality points out, a child who can’t read is likely to fall behind for the remainder of his or her life.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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GV Wire encourages vigorous debate from people and organizations on local, state, and national issues. Submit your op-ed to bmcewen@gvwire.com for consideration. 

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