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Legislators Take on Literacy: AB2222 Aims to Give California Kids More than a 50-50 Chance of Learning to Read

Updated: Feb 25


By Cheri Rae

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  - Margaret Mead.

 

In a major development for public education in California, state lawmakers have taken a crucial first step towards joining the burgeoning movement to address the nation’s persistent literacy crisis, by reforming the way reading is taught.

 

This month, Assembly Member Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) introduced legislation to require the adoption and implementation of literacy instruction based on scientific research and improved teacher training and professional development, in order to align classroom lessons with the reality of how the brain learns to read.

 

The measure, AB 2222, is co-sponsored by a dozen assembly members and joined by influential advocacy groups Decoding Dyslexia CA ; EdVoice ; and Families in Schools. The text of the bill may be found, and its progress tracked through the Legislature, here. 


The effort in Sacramento comes as dozens of other states, from Alabama and Arizona, to North Carolina and Colorado, have improved their literacy rates by requiring big changes in how reading is taught. Perennially low-scoring Mississippi’s extraordinary gains have inspired lawmakers across the country.

 

The cascading educational movement represents a political success story for an up-from-the-grassroots campaign led by parents of struggling readers, who have met and joined forces over the past decade to learn how to help their bright children who simply couldn’t seem to learn to read.

 

Seizing the power of social media, they have connected in ways never before possible — sharing information, resources, and insights — and recognized their common frustration: It wasn’t that their children couldn’t learn to read, they weren’t being taught to read. 

 

These parents and community members learned that the blame belongs, not on the dismissive reasons often given, like student reluctance, lack of motivation, or parental failure to read to their children - but on a faulty theory of how to teach reading.


Known as “balanced literacy,” the widely-used instructional approach ignores the five basic components of reading mastery — phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Instead, the approach focuses on guesswork, contextual clues, and the presumption that a love of literature would develop if students were just surrounded by enough good books.

 

As they have increased their knowledge of literacy instruction, however, they have united to educate, advocate, and legislate about what works — science — and what doesn’t — the balanced literacy theory,


And they set out to change the world.

 

Science and full disclosure. I am one of those parents, and I’ve been working at this for more than a decade — long after my once-struggling child was tutored privately in the science-based reading instruction he should have received in the classroom.


In one state after another, one school district after another, parents have engaged in a grassroots movement to improve literacy instruction from coast to coast. Joined by journalists—most notably Emily Hanford — and citing respected researchers, including Louisa Moats , Mark Seidenberg, and Maryanne Wolf , they have made the case that the art of education owes a great deal to scientific research, most especially in teaching students to read.

 

The recently introduced AB2222 is just the latest in the efforts to improve reading in California at the state and local levels.

 

Sacramento lawmakers may find an ally in dyslexic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who understands reading struggles first-hand and has done much to advance literacy instruction in the Golden State.

 

He previously signed legislation to require universal screening for dyslexia, and provided funding for a variety of initiatives, including training and hiring literacy coaches, strengthening teacher credentials for TK-3 by requiring instruction in the Science of Reading, and funding the creation of a literacy road map by the Department of Education. 


I am an optimist by nature, but as a longtime advocate who has witnessed far the too many defeats of meaningful literacy legislation, must be realistic. I’m hoping that this time the scientific evidence, and the example of so many other states’ success with science, will override the objections of the predictable opposition.


Sadly, and perhaps surprising to those unfamiliar with the politics involved in education, much of that opposition comes from within the education community. Maybe this time will be different. 

 

The local angle. What does all this mean to us in Santa Barbara? In the most recent California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) in the Santa Barbara Unified District, 50.06 per cent of students overall met or exceeded standards, with a good deal of variability between schools: elementary schools 22 to 57.8 percent; junior highs, 26.3 to 67.5 percent; and high schools 42.8 to 72 percent.


It is an understatement to say there is much room for local improvement and accountability.


The good news is that we don’t have to wait for the state legislation to become law, because change is already happening here. It hasn’t been quick or easy, but the writing is on the wall, and it spells out science.

 

After years of ignoring advocates’ pleas to stop wasting tax dollars and students’ potential by stubbornly staying with the failed balanced literacy approach, SBUSD administrators finally acknowledged it was time to make a change.


This school year they have adopted a curriculum based on the science of reading and have offered educators the opportunity to enroll in the specialized training that will become a requirement if the law passes.


Yet district leaders do not speak publicly much about science, or help advance the community’s understanding of the enormity of the change from a theoretical approach to reading instruction grounded in research.

 

Science of reading advocates in other local districts are having some success in moving the discussion forward.

 

We can all look to Peabody Charter Elementary School as an outstanding example of how to embrace and successfully implement the science of reading: Principal/Superintendent Demian Barnett and Assistant Principal Claire Krock have shown leadership in their own study of reading instruction and have provided their teachers time and support for intensive professional development as well as provided outreach to the school community.

 

Their efforts have paid off with 66.12 percent of Peabody students now meeting or exceeding standards — and earning designation as a California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon School designation in the process.


The County Office of Education, under the leadership of Superintendent Susan Salcido, also is beginning to grasp the science of reading.


County education leaders recently hosted cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf, who spoke movingly about the science of reading at a well-attended workshop. Participants continued the hard work of learning about how the brain learns to read by taking part in a reading group that studying Wolf's book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.

 

Bottom line. Assembly Bill 2222 may be successful. Our children deserve the right to read, and our parents and community members have other important work to do beyond continually advocating for literacy, one doubtful district and one skeptical administrator at a time. If this bill stalls or is defeated, there surely will be another.

 

The tipping point has finally been reached; school districts can no longer pretend that teaching only half the students to read is acceptable, or try to pass off balanced literacy as a best practice in reading instruction.


History shows that science triumphs, even in the change-resistant world of education.  Now practical legislation might finally be catching up with literacy, even in California.


P.S. Last fall, Assembly member Gregg Hart served as the keynote speaker at SBUSD's annual "Love for Literacy Luncheon," and spoke of the importance of literacy. "We need to have a system that embraces everybody and their learning needs," he stated. The passage of AB2222 will go a long way to supporting literacy for everyone. Urge Hart to support AB2222.


 Longtime literacy advocate Cheri Rae is the author of DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia and the recent biography, A String of Pearls: Pearl Chase of Santa Barbara.

 

 

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