Children in California are not reading well. The New York Times reports that lawyers are suing the state on behalf of three schools, one a charter, for not following state literacy experts who are concerned about students learning English, those with disabilities, and African American and Hispanic students.
Here are some thoughts when it comes to reading instruction in general and the reading problems in California. The problems plaguing California’s children can also be found in the rest of the country.
The Worst Civil Rights Problem Facing Schools
The lawyers say learning to read in school is the worst civil rights issue for children in school. Learning to read is serious. It impacts how one learns everything else in school.
But in order to learn how to read it’s important to look at other areas in a child’s life.
If a child doesn’t have access to good health care and they are sick and hungry, they probably aren’t going to learn to read well.
They should also live in a decent home. Here is a report from the PTA:
According to California Department of Education data, the number of homeless students in California jumped from 167,910 in 2014 to 202,329 in 2016, an increase of over 20 percent in just two years. Many believe the numbers to be underreported due to embarrassment and shame which may discourage students and their families from accurately reporting their homelessness. School districts have an incentive to count the number of homeless students because they receive additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) for these students.
It’s difficult to separate how a child learns to read and their other problems.
The State Spends $10 Billion Annually
From the NYT’s report A spokesman for the Education Department, Bill Ainsworth, had no comment on the lawsuit. But he said that California had one of the nation’s “most ambitious” programs to serve low-income students, and that it was investing more than $10 billion annually to help underserved students.
Where is all that money going?
When I was teaching, teachers always had to take inventory. We had to document everything we spent money on in our classrooms—including textbooks and desks.
Can’t schools determine what they are spending money on and what’s not working?
They Use Data
In addition, the state also collects data to help educators figure out where to target resources, he said, adding that 228 districts will receive additional support next year, including the three schools named in the suit.
Never before in the history of education and public schools is there so much data flying around about students and test scores and even behavior.
Parents are scared of all this and rightly so.
Data is supposed to be used for best practices in school, or so we are told. California doesn’t seem to know how to use their data. They say they are finally getting around to helping these schools, but they’ve known for a long time how the schools struggled.
Common Core State Standards
The accusation is that students aren’t reaching standards. What about the standards themselves? Since 2010, California signed on to Common Core English language arts standards.
It doesn’t sound like they’ve worked.
Are children being judged wrong due to California’s standards which are tied to Common Core?
California, like many states, made the switch many years ago to focus on phonics. Are students getting the opportunity to do free reading and writing activities? Do young children get time to look at picture books?
Reading experts like Stephen Krashen highlight the importance of reading for pleasure.
Krashen wrote a compelling report in 2002 warning those in California and the country of the importance of actual reading and how it leads to literacy development. He advocated better libraries too!
California has a real library problem in that poor students don’t have good school libraries and access to a real librarian. They’ve had this problem for a long time.
It is clear that students do better when they have access to a library and a credentialed librarian.
One school mentioned in the lawsuit has class sizes of 24 to 1 in early grades; 31 to 1 for grades 4-5. When teachers work with children who are dealing with a wide variety of difficulties, even trauma, class sizes should be decreased.
Bilingual and Special Education Teachers
Bilingual students don’t seem to be getting prepared teachers. And there is a similar problem with special education.
Is California relying too much on fast track teachers, or those who focus too much on data collection and testing?
Are they failing to place in the classroom university prepared teachers, or those who have studied child development, who have experience and understand how to do real teaching, and who understand languages?
Why aren’t real universities providing better and more preparation programs for these teachers?
These are some of the questions I’d ask about California’s schools and schools across the nation.
Stephen Krashen. “Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92. an Urban Legend from CA.” Phi Delta Kappan. 83(10) 748-753.