State education leaders say hiring more literacy coaches and specialists to work with both teachers and students is a key to getting all students to read by the third grade by 2026, amid what some have called a national literacy crisis.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond set that 2026 goal last fall and assembled a task force of educators, parents and education experts to put together policy recommendations aimed at turning the tide on years of low reading scores throughout California. At a virtual hearing Wednesday, Thurmond, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond and other educators pledged to continue lobbying for funding for literacy coaches and specialists as the state budget process plays out. They also expressed support for literacy initiatives included in three bills already proposed in the state Assembly and Senate.

Literacy coaches mainly train teachers and school staff on literacy instruction, conduct professional development and facilitate whatever reading curriculum the school uses. Specialists work directly with the students in one-on-one or small-group settings.

“I know that reading by third grade has eluded the educational system for many, many years, but this is something we can achieve,” Thurmond said at the hearing.

For years, experts have identified third grade reading proficiency as an important benchmark in students’ overall academic career. Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by then will struggle to catch up throughout their education career and can be at greater risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.

During the 2020-21 school year, 60.21% of third grade students tested below grade level on the state’s Smarter Balanced test for English/language arts.

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum, representing students who struggled to read, filed a lawsuit against the state in 2017 that resulted in a settlement of $50 million in grants for 75 California elementary schools. Responding to the hearing, he said schools would certainly benefit from more literacy coaches and specialists, but he thinks the task force’s recommendations are “a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed” to get struggling readers the support they need. The state should be held accountable for years of lagging reading scores, he said, which is no reflection on the students themselves.

“This is not the time for piecemeal approaches; this is the time for comprehensive, science-based programs … and making sure every school has what they need,” Rosenbaum said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2022-23 budget proposal in January includes $500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists. Thurmond, at the hearing, said it’s still too soon to anticipate what the governor will include in his revised budget proposal in May based on adjusted revenue projections. But the superintendent said he will continue to advocate for the reading specialists and coaches.

The task force came to that recommendation based on research from the Learning Policy Institute, of which Darling-Hammond is the president and CEO. In 2020, the institute published research into seven “positive outlier” districts in the state in which African American, Latino and white students substantially outperformed their peers on California’s state assessments. These districts all provided teachers with extensive coaching and professional development on literacy instruction, Darling-Hammond said.

All the districts emphasized phonics, phonemic awareness and other reading techniques in kindergarten and first grade, she said. They also fostered “rich literacy environments” with read-alongs, “extensive” speaking and listening opportunities, and grade-level texts that were both culturally responsive and available in multiple languages.

“These were not quiet classrooms with kids listening and writing things down or copying off the board, but classrooms where students were in pair-shares, guided reading discussions doing collaborative work using those skills,” Darling-Hammond said.

The districts also regularly used assessments, records and other diagnostic tools to gauge where students’ skill levels and which ones needed work. They also routinely made one-on-one tutoring available to students who needed it, and integrated literacy instruction in all subject areas.

“One of the things we’re learning from the research is that when you do the right kind of small group or one-on-one tutoring with a strong curriculum in reading, you can very quickly move a child forward in 12-15 weeks to catch up to the rest of the class,” Darling-Hammond said.

Erika Torres, county administrator for the Inglewood Unified School District, said that without specific funding for reading specialists and coaches, the district wouldn’t be able to afford them. The district has a 20-30% proficiency rate for English/language arts in all grades, and Torres sees providing “quality literacy instruction” to all of its students as a matter of social justice, as well as a “critical dropout prevention strategy.”

Thurmond is also putting his support behind two Assembly bills and a Senate bill proposed by Assemblymember Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, and Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara. Assembly Bill 2465 would create grant programs to provide library cards to every public school student, fund programs that would include home visits to engage families in their students’ literacy instruction, and pay for the development and credentialing of 500 new bilingual educators. AB 2498 would establish a three-year pilot summer literacy and learning-loss mitigation program next year based on the Freedom Schools programs. SB 952 would provide grants to school districts, county offices of education and certain charter schools to create dual language immersion programs.

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