TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

A promising investment in improving reading instruction in California

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There are lots of discussions happening these days from classrooms to statehouses about how to teach young students to read. As increasing numbers of schools, districts, and states embrace and invest in a scientifically based approach to teaching reading, some are bound to wonder about the efficacy of their efforts. A recent working paper out of Stanford University and the Annenberg Institute at Brown University suggests reason for optimism.

This study, by Sarah Novikoff and Thomas Dee, examines the implementation and outcomes of California's Early Literacy Support Block Grant (ELSBG), an initiative that provided funding (roughly $642,000 per school over three years) to California's 75 lowest-performing elementary schools to implement high-quality literacy instruction grounded in the science of reading. Schools were required to allocate dollars in four areas: high-quality literacy teaching; support for literacy learning, such as instructional materials; pupil supports, such as tutoring or after-school programming; and family and community support. Beyond this guidance, schools were given significant flexibility to design for their students' needs and contexts.

To examine the impact of ELSBG, the study uses student achievement data from the California Assessment of Student Progress (CAASPP) between 2014–15 and 2022–23. (The last two years of data correspond to the first two years of ELSBG implementation.) The sample includes more than 5,000 elementary schools, of which 64 participated in the ELSBG initiative.

The report finds compelling evidence that a focused approach on the science of reading, supported with adequate funding for implementation, leads to substantial improvements in students' English language arts (ELA) outcomes.

Looking at third-grade achievement (the only tested grade also eligible for literacy support under ELSBG), researchers found that school participation in ELSBG is associated with an ELA gain of nearly a quarter of a year of learning. They also found smaller spillover effects on math performance, potentially attributed to students' stronger reading skills. To check whether these gains were the result of the initiative, the study also analyzed fifth-grade performance and did not see any effect on these students (who never experienced the ELSBG supports). This finding strongly suggests that the gains were due to these additional supports.

Moreover, this focus on reading instruction was cost-effective. With an estimated cost of $1,144 per student, researchers estimate the ELSBG approach was 13 times more efficient in enhancing student achievement (in terms of student learning gains per dollar spent) than a generalized increase in school spending. It was also more cost-effective and produced greater learning gains than California's previous class size reductions. 

As states contend with questions of local control while they work to implement improved reading instruction, the ELSBG model offers a roadmap: set clear guardrails and offer flexibility. The science is settled—we know how to effectively teach nearly all students to read. This study illustrates that policies to implement this knowledge can significantly improve students' reading. This is good news for the states that have recently passed legislation and are currently working to implement stronger policies and practices related to the science of reading, and it is a call to action for remaining states. It will be important to track whether the gains seen in this study are sustained over time, but in the short term, California's investment in the science of reading was decidedly worth it.