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For Now, California Won’t Mandate ‘Science of Reading.’ Here’s What Happened

California schools can, for now, continue using a looser approach to how reading is taught to young children after a bill to mandate a “science of reading” strategy failed to even garner a hearing in the legislature.

The legislation—which supporters said would have required teachers to shift their instructional practices to align with the body of evidence on how kids learn to read—drew strong opposition from the state’s largest teachers’ union and an advocacy group for English learners.

Some 37 states, including California, have adopted policies to this end, although the Golden State has so far mainly relied on grants and incentives, rather than mandates and prohibitions.

The bill, introduced by Democratic state assembly member Blanca Rubio in February, would have taken a more aggressive approach. It proposed requiring school districts to use specific reading curricula, and it would have required all elementary reading teachers and those who support them, such as principals and instructional coaches, to complete an approved science of reading professional development course. Additionally, it would have assessed the quality of teacher-preparation programs specifically on literacy.

“Despite this setback, I will not give up on comprehensive, evidence-based early literacy reform to help close the extreme reading achievement gap our state is currently facing,” Rubio said in a statement to Education Week. Rubio spent 16 years as a teacher. “It’s what our educators need and our students deserve—particularly low-income Black and Latino students, English learners, and students with disabilities who are experiencing disproportionate reading challenges in our classrooms.”

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations.

However, most teachers in the United States have practiced balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment.

The bill had the support of nearly 70 advocacy and research organizations, such as the California State PTA, Children’s Defense Fund California, and the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Al Muratsuchi, the chair of the state assembly’s education committee, told Education Week in an email that he supports the science of reading but wants to make sure that the state develops “a literacy instruction strategy that works for all of our students.”

Teachers’ union opposed the bill

The decision not to move the bill forward came after opponents of the bill, such as the California Teachers Association and English-learner advocacy coalition Californians Together, sent letters to Muratsuchi arguing that it isn’t the right way to ensure all kids will succeed.

The California Teachers Association argued in its letter that the bill is “flawed because it assumes all students learn in the same way.” The state’s largest teachers’ union said that it’s “problematic” to place a definition for science of reading in statute because the research is “not static and it can and should change over time if we are to grow in our knowledge.”

The union also argued that the bill would undermine current literacy initiatives.

Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t indicated his position on the bill.

In California, the state’s 2023-24 budget allocates funding for literacy coaches, reading screening assessments, and the creation of a “literacy roadmap.”

Teacher-preparation programs are required to demonstrate that they’re preparing teachers to deliver “foundational reading skills” instruction, including for English learners. And elementary and special education teacher candidates are required to pass a new credentialing test on reading and literacy, starting in 2025.

Prior research has found that California’s investment in early literacy as a result of the settlement of a state lawsuit paid dividends for student achievement.

‘It’s a solvable problem’

Advocates for an evidence-based approach to teaching reading say that it’s important for California to mandate this change in literacy instruction.

Rubio has argued that current state law doesn’t ensure teachers and school personnel are provided with the necessary evidence-based training to effectively teach reading. The current law also doesn’t provide support or adequate oversight to ensure teacher-preparation programs’ literacy-teaching standards are grounded in the science of reading, she said.

In 2022-23, less than half—43 percent—of California 3rd-graders met the academic standards on the state’s standardized test for English/language arts. When broken down, 27 percent of Black students, 32 percent of Latino students, and 35 percent of low-income children were reading at grade level. By comparison, 58 percent of white, 69 percent of Asian, and 66 percent of non-low-income students were reading at grade level.

“One aspiration that families who have very young children have when they start school is that they’re going to go to school to learn to read, because they know it’s the foundation for learning,” said Yolie Flores, the CEO and president of Families in Schools, an organization focused on improving student success through family engagement. “And yet, we haven’t delivered on that promise.”

“It’s a solvable problem,” she added. Families in Schools was one of the organizational supporters of the bill, along with EdVoice and Decoding Dyslexia California.

Flores and other proponents of the bill point to Mississippi—a state that had long had some of the lowest reading performance—as a model. Starting in 2013, the Magnolia State passed a series of laws overhauling its approach to teaching reading and preparing future reading teachers. Just under a decade later, in 2022, the numbers of students performing at or above the basic level of proficiency in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had reached 64 percent—slightly better than the national percentage of 61 percent.

Teachers need flexibility, opponents say

Still, opponents of the bill say a mandate wouldn’t work.

“We have the same North Star,” said Martha Hernandez, the executive director of Californians Together. “We recognize the urgency of addressing equity and literacy outcomes, especially for our very diverse state.”

Hernandez and other opponents believe that a uniform mandate isn’t what teachers and students need.

The bill “overlooks the importance of allowing teachers to adapt instruction to fit the unique needs of their students, to differentiate for their students,” Hernandez said.

Teachers’ unions in other states have bristled at prescriptive reading laws, such as the one in Ohio that bans the teaching practice of having students use multiple “cues” to learn new words. Generally, they argue that such tight control of teaching interferes with teachers’ professionalism and ability to design lessons as they see fit.

Some opponents are open to working together with the authors of the bill to find a better solution to the state’s literacy challenges.

“We can perceive this as an opportunity to regroup and put forth a stronger version of the bill,” Hernandez said. For her, a better version of the bill would drop the mandate and offer a more comprehensive definition of the science of reading.

Rubio and the sponsors of the bill said they look forward to reintroducing it during the next legislative session, hopefully with more feedback from and collaboration with those who have issues with the current language in the bill.

“Doing what we’re doing now is not working,” Flores said. “Doing what we see other states doing, where we see improvements for English learners and all kids, deserves a shot.”

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