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Are California's public schools failing their students on literacy?

Are California's public schools failing their students on literacy?
First grade students are ready to head to the classroom on the first day of school at the Telesis Academy in West Covina, Calif. on August 15, 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

The song “School Days” famously encapsulated primary education as “reading and ’riting and ’rithmetic” 110 years ago, acknowledging a widely understood truth about public schools: literacy is one of the most important, if not the most important, skill that they should impart to students. In fact, in ancient days, the ability to read and write was so prized that erudite citizens put on public performances displaying their abilities with the written word.

Reading has been valued in the United States for as long as the country has existed, and even before. American colonists were more likely to be literate than Europeans. The Founding Fathers believed that if the populace could read, and especially if it could read the newspapers of a free press, it would be able to evade tyranny. And today, reading remains the key to learning just about everything else. Theoretically, at least, we could all learn advanced physics from a book, though many of us might not want to try that in real life.

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Yet now, according to a lawsuit brought by a group of students, parents and advocacy organizations against the state of California, the government is failing to teach students to read, thus reneging on its constitutional responsibility to provide a free and public education of at least reasonable quality. And if the plaintiffs’ claims of low literacy are true, they have a good point.

The state’s reading scores stagnated this year. Fewer than half of students meet its English standards.


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Certainly, the signs of trouble are there. The state lags behind the national average for reading proficiency. A study at Stanford University separately found that of the 26 school districts nationwide with low reading performance, 11 were in California. We’re a big chunk of the national population, but not that big.

The lawsuit, filed by the public-service law firm Public Counsel, alleges that the problems exist in charter schools as well as district-run public schools. The lawsuit points specifically to such schools as La Salle Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where only about 10 of the nearly 180 students tested met the state’s English standards this year.

California’s tests set a relatively high bar, designed to assess whether students are on track to attend college after graduation. But Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, says the shortcomings are so bad that they hamper students’ chances to get minimum-wage jobs, and that they occur among both fluent speakers of English and those still learning the language. In an interview, Rosenbaum said he recently met with a group of high school students in South Los Angeles who lacked the reading skills to fill out a job application for a fast-food hamburger chain.

Nearly five years ago, a report by a panel of educational experts called for quick and decisive action to help schools and teachers do a better job of teaching reading. “The critical need to address the literacy development of California children and students cannot be underestimated,” the report said, adding later, “As the facts listed illustrate, many students will be at academic risk if improved approaches to literacy instruction are not an immediate and central focus of California‘s educational system.”

If those improved approaches have actually been implemented, there hasn’t been much sign of them. The state’s reading scores stagnated this year. Fewer than half of students meet its English standards.

The state Department of Education notes that its Local Control Funding Formula provides extra money to schools with high numbers of low-income students and those who aren’t fluent in English. Extra money is great, but it’s just the first step in helping students. The dollars have to be spent in ways that bring results. Yet instead of providing low-performing schools with proven literacy programs and requiring improved performance, the state has left districts to find their own solutions. Local control indeed.

That might be fine if California made sure that those school districts were doing their job effectively. Instead, it also has backed away from its role as overseer of educational progress, with a baffling new color-coded accountability system that includes too many items that don’t necessarily translate into better learning. “Its dashboard accountability system is complicated and incomplete,” and it doesn’t reveal what the state plans to do about low-performing schools, says a new report by a policy group that examines the school improvement plans developed by each state.

California might not be able to turn all of its students into university-level scholars, but at minimum, it owes them that most basic part of education: Strong reading programs and the teachers trained to deliver them. And they shouldn’t have to sue to get it.

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