California needs to do more to ensure teachers can teach kids to read, national study says

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Melissa Ramirez, a first grade teacher at Lockeford Elementary in Lodi, holds up a flashcard while students say and spell the word 'water.'

Despite a newfound national focus on the science of reading, states, including California, aren’t doing enough to support and train teachers to effectively teach literacy, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality

Thirty-two states have passed laws or implemented policies related to evidence-based reading instruction in the last decade. Despite that, nearly every state could do more to support literacy instruction, according to the report, “Five Policy Actions to Strengthen Implementation of the Science of Reading.

“While states are rightly prioritizing literacy, they are not focusing enough attention on teacher effectiveness and teacher capacity to teach reading aligned to the science,” council President Heather Peske told EdSource. “If these efforts are to succeed … the state needs to ensure that teachers are prepared and supported from the time that they are in teacher preparation programs to the time that they enter classrooms.”

The report rated states as strong, moderate, weak or unacceptable, based on whether they have policies to ensure students receive science-based reading instruction that includes teaching them to sound out words, a process known as phonics. Only 12 states, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia, were rated as strong.

California received a moderate rating.

The state gets high marks for setting reading standards for teacher preparation programs, adopting a strong reading licensure test for teachers, and requiring districts to select high-quality reading curricula. California scored lower on whether it requires ongoing literacy training for teachers and on its oversight of teacher preparation programs to ensure they are teaching the science of reading.

While California provides funds to school districts to offer literacy training to teachers, it does not require all elementary school teachers to be trained in the science of reading, as other states do, Peske said, adding that without proper training, teachers often flounder when teaching literacy, despite having access to high-quality instructional materials.

Effective teaching is critical to improving students’ reading skills. More than 90% of students would learn to read with effective reading instruction, according to the report.

About 40% of students entering fourth grade in the United States can read at a basic level, according to the research. The latest California test scores show fewer than half of the students who were tested were proficient in reading. These results have not changed much in the past decade. 

“Why do we see staggering numbers of children, especially children of color and from low-income backgrounds, without fundamental literacy skills? said Denise Forte, president and CEO of The Education Trust. “Because in many districts and schools nationwide, outdated teaching methods and curricula that have been proven ineffective, and even harmful, are still being used.” 

The report comes as California and other states are renewing their focus on the science of reading, which is based on over 50 years of research that provides a clear picture of how effective literacy instruction can produce a skilled reader, Peske said. 

Only two of the 41 teacher preparation programs reviewed in California adequately cover all five components of the science of reading, according to the report. The five components include phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

But that could change soon. By July 1, California will require teacher preparation programs to provide literacy training based on the science of reading and the state’s new literacy standards. The new standards include support for struggling readers, English learners and pupils with exceptional needs, incorporating dyslexia guidelines for the first time.

The state is also eliminating the unpopular Reading Instruction Competence Assessment in 2025. It will be replaced with a performance assessment based on literacy standards and a new set of Teaching Performance Expectations.

“This latest set of standards and TPEs are probably the strongest statements we’ve had about reading and literacy in teacher preparation,” said Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “We are going gangbusters to get them in the field.”

More than half of the states use outside accreditors to review teacher preparation programs, which researchers say is not ideal. The report includes California as one of those states, but Sandy says that is not the case. Teacher preparation programs in California must be reviewed every seven years by a commission-approved institutional review board made up of university faculty and practitioners across all credential areas, Sandy said. Members are trained on the standards, or have a background or credential in the subject being reviewed, she said.

Teacher preparation programs that want a national accreditation can choose to use an outside accreditor, but it is not required for state accreditation, Sandy said.

California should also include data it collects on teacher pass rates on the state reading licensure test as part of the review of teacher preparation programs, Peske said.

California’s changes to teacher preparation and emphasis on the science of reading were taken into consideration by National Council on Teacher Quality’s researchers when evaluating the state, Peske said. The research was also sent to the California Department of Education at least twice for review. No one at the department said the research was in error, according to the council.

The council has provided a guide to help states implement and sustain strong reading instruction.

“Helping all children learn to read is possible when you have teachers who’ve been prepared in the science of reading,” Peske said. “Much like an orchestra needs each section of instruments to come together to successfully create music, states need to implement multiple teacher-focused reading policies that work together to improve student outcomes.”

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