Classroom at Birney Elementary School in the San Diego
Students learning to read in a San Diego elementary school. Image courtesy San Diego Unified School District

The number of California students who cannot read is shocking.

Results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 32% of fourth graders are reading proficiently. These results put California below the national average and behind 25 other states.

While the ranking is cause for concern, the difference in absolute performance exposes a reading crisis in California. Our students are over a year and half behind Massachusetts, the top-ranking state.

Reading is obviously vital to subjects such as English, history and social science. But now with the new math standards, which focus on word problems and answering problems with written explanations, reading, vocabulary and comprehension are even more important to math.

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If you can’t read the word problem, you can’t solve it. That means struggling readers in California are not able to access the core content of a basic education guaranteed as a fundamental right in the California Constitution or become well-prepared for the STEM jobs of the future.

Failure to teach children to read effectively has well-documented long-term adverse effects throughout their lives.

Students who struggle with reading are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And the correlation between illiteracy and incarceration is strong. A 2014 study on adult literacy published by the U.S. Department of Education found that one-third of incarcerated adults in 98 prisons struggled to read basic text.

In California, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that more than half of adult inmates are functionally illiterate.

California must stop the school to prison pipeline and remedy this inequity and injustice by ensuring that the state’s investment in training novice teachers to teach all children to read is based on the proven science of what works in early reading.

Bill Luria
Bill Luria

If we expect teachers to teach our kids the fundamental skills needed to read, we must provide them with the knowledge they need to be effective.

Science has confirmed that a systematic, explicit approach that emphasizes phonics is the most effective way to teach foundational skills of early reading. Yet 75% of teachers working with early readers reported teaching ineffective reading techniques and even encouraging students to guess unfamiliar words based on context and pictures.

The reason: institutions of higher education have fallen down on the responsibility to ensure all program completers are able to use the science of reading that is so critical for effectively developing early reading skills and becoming confident readers to read for comprehension and meaning.

In California, teaching candidates must take and pass a licensure test that assesses if new teachers possess the science-based knowledge and skills to effectively teach students how to read.

However, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the statewide passing rate of first-time test takers has plummeted over the last decade to 65.4%.

This clearly suggests programs preparing new teachers are either ignoring the science of reading or not teaching it well enough to their students. Educators cannot teach using techniques they themselves have not been taught.

High-quality professional development is one of the five key components of an effective reading program identified by the American Federation of Teachers. States across the country have invested in professional development focused on teaching educators the science of reading and have seen significant positive results.

In 2013, lawmakers in Mississippi passed legislation that provided funding to train teachers in the science of reading.

By ensuring all teachers had an understanding of the scientifically backed approaches to early reading instruction, Mississippi saw a 10-point gain in fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores, the only state in 2019 with statistically significant increases.

2017 study found that since the legislation was enacted, educator knowledge of foundational early literacy skills increased, quality teaching instruction grew and student engagement surged.

In Washington, a new state law requires teachers to emphasize four science-based skills when teaching early reading. Arkansas also introduced a statewide initiative to increase teacher knowledge of the science of reading with an emphasis on phonics by connecting scientific findings to instructional classroom practices.

The key to developing strong readers is providing teachers with the preparation and knowledge they need for excellent instruction. By making teaching practices based on the science of reading a budgetary and policy priority, California can intentionally invest in the science of what works and give all new and existing teachers the resources they need to help early and struggling readers reach their full potential in life.

In the coming months, California legislators will draft a new state budget, deciding which educational programs to fund.

If we are going to really commit to equity of opportunity, change the trajectory of the lives of disadvantaged students in high-poverty communities and ensure all children are prepared for the work of tomorrow, California must invest in teacher preparation programs and professional development anchored in the science of reading. Legislators must make supporting novice teachers a priority in the state budget by funding opportunities to strengthen their abilities and effectiveness in the classroom.

We can be a better state when we have a well-educated populous and every child is able to reach their full potential. By investing in science-based professional development and training for teachers, we will set teachers and students up for success. By helping teachers help kids, we can build a strong foundation for lifelong learning.

Bill Lucia is president and chief executive officer of EdVoice, a Sacramento-based nonprofit advocating for policies that increase measurable student performance. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.