EDUCATION - “America’s low literacy crisis is largely ignored, historically underfunded and woefully under-researched, despite being one of the great solvable problems of our time” – president of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy
According to research, before the pandemic half of California’s third graders did not read at grade level and the state’s fourth graders lagged behind the national average in reading. Moreover, in 800 schools around the state, 75% of the students failed to read at grade level.
Despite these dire numbers, the state lacks a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction, and in 2017 California became the first state to be sued for denying children the civil right to literacy.
As reported earlier this month in CityWatch, California’s Board of Education has delayed statewide release of this year’s results of standardized testing of our students, presumably because they will show what everybody already knows: a sharp decline in basic reading and math skills.
Prettying up the data by framing it with metrics is not going to change the fact that our state’s schools, which have already been failing our students, are in the doghouse again.
Individual school districts could opt to release their numbers and the LAUSD at least had the guts to show that 72% of their charges did not meet state standards in math, while 58% did not meet state standards in English.
The shock is not so much that these numbers have increased – five points and two points respectively – but that they are so bad to begin with in a city desperate to attract well-paying jobs.
Certainly, there are any number of contributing causes, but a few stand out.
California has the biggest wealth chasm.
And this feeds into division by race. During the pandemic the working poor – primarily people of color – could not afford the tutors, computers and other educational assets of the monied classes. Not to mention that many middle and upper class parents were able to work from home, overseeing and helping their kids.
Essential workers – including a significant number of Blacks, Hispanics, Filipinos and recent immigrants – who had to work in person, often had no one to look after their kids let alone ensure they were doing their schoolwork and to help when there were problems.
Their kids are now even further behind.
Parental education is another major factor. States with large percentages of highly literate parents have students that score the highest in standardized testing.
California tops all other states for immigrant population with over one-third of Los Angeles County residents being born in foreign countries. It’s a generalization but, historically, educated immigrants have settled in the northern tier of states while those who come over the southern border seeking a better future tend not to have equivalent academic credentials.
The solutions to the foregoing problems are not simple. Their complexity and political ramifications defy easy fixes.
Controversy exists over how to teach reading and, in recent years, a push to implement evidence-based reading instruction has caused schools around the country to re-evaluate their approach.
Students from Texas and Mississippi, states that Angelenos generally look down on, come west already reading a couple of grades ahead of their peers in California.
Mississippi’s students now score at or above the national average: between 2013 and 2019, they moved from 39th to 2nd in the fourth-grade reading score rankings.
In the fall of 2019, Mississippi posted the highest growth of all states on the National Assessment for Education Progress. These gains were particularly strong in reading, where Mississippi was the only state to show improvement on the fourth-grade reading assessment.
Founder of Netscape (and former FedEx employee), Jim Barksdale, had argued:
“If FedEx can get a package from the middle of Manhattan to the middle of Tokyo in 48 hours, track it along the way, and guarantee its timely delivery, then we ought to be able to teach every child in Mississippi to read.”
And in 2000 he committed his own money – $100 million – to improving Mississippi’s literacy rates.
The state targeted basic reading skills, including phonemic awareness, phonics instruction, reading fluency, and vocabulary to create a strong foundation for children’s future education.
If Mississippi can drastically improve the results in their schools, surely California can do as good or better.
Why hasn’t California used the money it received from the pandemic and its current tax surplus to jump start literacy?
Structurally, there are recognized issues in the LAUSD and other Golden State school systems. Students who get in trouble in school are also those who need the most help but, instead, are too often put on detention outside of classes, expelled or simply drop out.
Programs in California to teach English to children whose parents speak another language at home have shown little success. Only ten percent of students enrolled in such programs improve their proficiency to grade level.
That’s a significant problem in a state where over 200 languages are spoken and one out of every six of the six million students registered in California schools does not have English as his or her primary language.
And California school districts unfortunately have bought textbooks that are ineffective because too many of the decision-makers are in the pockets of the state’s powerful publishers.
A New York Times survey asked people what school was for: the responses leaned heavily on inclusivity, economic mobility, building citizenship, hope for the future, and encouraging intellectual curiosity.
But teachers don’t have enough time to prepare when too many of their students need individual attention.
To assist them, California needs trained coaches in all of its schools, not just the worst or the wealthiest.
The Department of Education and all of its school districts must double down on enhancing both its math and English education programs or the state will keep falling down the rabbit hole of having too many students left behind.
(Liz Amsden is a regular contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)