California is a state that takes a lot of pride in its contrarian, go-it-alone approach—bucking national trends with a degree of confidence that I argue leaves proud Texans in the dust. Over the last couple of decades while the rest of the nation embraced the need to reform K-12 education, the Golden State basically thumbed its nose. I think in all the years NCTQ was grading states on the quality of their teacher policies, it never got a grade higher than D+ —nor did it seem to care a whit that it didn't.
Not that California is always wrong and the rest of us right. To California's great credit, in 1998 it was the first state to adopt a really good licensing test, the RICA, requiring new elementary teachers to show they knew something about how to teach kids to read. It is with some considerable irony that twenty some years later, at a moment when the rest of the nation is gripped by our preventable reading crisis, education leaders in California along with the state's formidable teachers union have decided that the RICA is an anachronism and needs to go. The chances of the California State Assembly agreeing with this assessment some time this spring, shall we say, are not small.
Last week I thought we got some really good news on the reading front from California, with a settlement that might serve to remind more Californians that a third of its kids, year in and year out, do not learn to read and that these grim results are largely avoidable. The state settled the case, deciding that it would direct about $50 million to the state's lowest performing 75 schools.
So what squelched my enthusiasm? The settlement agreement still tiptoes around the most likely reason these kids aren't reading. Given the state's own tepid stand on reading science, it's highly unlikely that these 75 schools (or many California schools) are delivering scientifically-based reading instruction. As our own analysis shows, their teachers probably never got the training they needed and arrived in schools that had to pick from California's approved list of ELA textbooks. Look no further than that list: in addition to being somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of quality, state officials also single out a textbook California schools are not allowed to use—even though it is fully aligned with scientific findings (CK Language Arts).
The newly won dollars can be broadly applied to a lot of things, none of them bad ideas, such as both before and after school programs, extending the hours of the school library, as well as greater access to mental health, family, and community supports. All of these are important, but to my cynical eye, the expansiveness of these allowable expenditures signals a clear intention to keep the bar on where to direct these dollars pretty low.
For example, teachers' professional development will need to be "evidence-based," though the settlement never spells out what body of evidence. Curriculum materials will need to be "aligned" with California's "ELA/ELD standards and framework," but gives no further guidelines to guarantee that materials actually teach the science of reading.
Also troubling were the remarks made by the winning, pro-bono prosecutor (not the state's attorney) from Public Counsel, who apparently told New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein that "'ideology' over how to teach reading was not as fundamental here as the fact that the very basic needs of these low-performing schools -- like books -- have been going unfulfilled." Can I beg to differ? What I'm wondering is how this statement is any more appropriate than someone who expresses indifference over what drug a doctor uses on her cancer patients or what formula an engineer uses for paving a road so that it lasts longer or, bringing it closer to home here, believes in "learning styles." Those who fail to acknowledge what's been learned about reading from both laboratory and classroom settings, complete with a convincing body of physiological evidence, cannot lay claim to this being an issue where reasonable minds can differ.
Plain and simple, the perpetuation of reading science as an 'ideology,' 'just one approach among others,' is ascientific, a conclusion that can only be reached by not taking the time to review the evidence at hand. Let's just hope that the folks on the ground in these 75 California schools, eager to do better by their students, will think better of it.