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LAUSD moves forward with revamped math and reading intervention program

Will Callan | June 25, 2023

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Correction appended June 26

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho answers questions about LAUSD’s new academic intervention model during a board meeting on June 20. (LAUSD Board)

A popular literacy program that LAUSD superintendent Alberto Carvalho proposed significantly altering will get a one-year reprieve, with specialist positions off the budgetary chopping block.

Part of the recently approved $18.8 billion budget, the move responds to teachers and parents who protested Carvalho’s plan to revamp the program, known as Primary Promise. 

Primary Promise used small group instruction to help struggling K-3 students master basic reading and math skills. But Carvalho said it was unsustainable, relying on non-recurring pandemic relief funds. 

This month Carvalho unveiled a new math and reading program that would have required many schools to shoulder the cost of those teachers, known as interventionists. 

With the new funds, that’s no longer the case — at least for next year.

In contrast to Primary Promise, Carvalho’s Literacy and Numeracy Intervention model relies less on dedicated interventionists and more on training regular classroom teachers to deliver different levels of instruction. It also extends support to students in middle and high school.

Supporters of Carvalho’s plan say its expanded reach is more equitable, targeting struggling readers at all grade levels. Primary Promise advocates say there’s no better time to address future academic success than the earliest grades, and the district should be able to both preserve Primary Promise and pay for the new program.

With the recent budget approval, the new plan will take effect this fall. A number of factors suggest the district has its work cut out for it. 

Research has shown that programs that put too much onus on classroom teachers are difficult to pull off. Board members, teachers, parents, and advocates are demanding accountability, asking the district to clarify how the new program will be assessed and regularly update parents on its progress. And they want to see a continued commitment to early literacy despite the planned phaseout of Primary Promise. 

“I worry about this cycle of remediation that we often get, I believe, in this school district, and not setting a strong enough foundation, districtwide, for students to be proficient readers,” said board member Kelly Gonez at a June 6 meeting during which district officials presented the new program. 

While all agree that investment in early literacy will pay off down the road, supporters of the Carvalho plan call extra attention to the present — to poor reading and math achievement at all grade levels.

“We are hearing from parents, their desperation,” said former LAUSD board member Yolie Flores, now president and CEO of the LA-based Families in Schools, one of 24 organizations that signed a letter supporting the new plan.

“And I think they started to see a glimmer, a glimpse of what was happening — that their kids couldn’t read — during the pandemic, ‘cause they were home,” she said.

Only 35% of LAUSD third graders, 39% of eighth graders, and 46% of 11th graders met or exceeded state reading standards in the 2021-22 school year. For math, respectively, the figures are 37%, 21%, and 18%. 

Flores added the district should “do a deep-dive in informing parents.” 

“[Parents] need support in knowing what good instruction looks like, because they can be the best monitors,” she said. “I’d like at least a quarterly, ‘here’s what’s happening, here’s how many children we are reaching.’”

LAUSD’s board members also see communication as a key challenge going forward. Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin said that she first heard about the cuts to Primary Promise through the advocacy of upset teachers who’d been notified of potential job reassignment.

“I do think we often have an opportunity to learn about how we communicate, to staff in particular, when shifts are impacting their jobs, whether that’s the scope of the work or the location of their work,” she said. 

Primary Promise cost the district $134 million this year and would have cost $192 million had it been expanded to all elementary schools. Those interventionist positions were centrally funded, with individual schools footing none of the cost.

Before last week’s announcement about the extra funding, the new model would have shifted more of the burden to schools, lowering the district’s financial responsibility.

But the district identified $40 million of unused federal funding earmarked for the district’s high-poverty schools. That brings the total 2023-24 cost of the new intervention program to $122 million, according to a district spokesperson.

While that money will allow some schools to retain their Primary Promise interventionists, many teachers have already moved on. 

Another major difference between Primary Promise and the Carvalho plan is the latter will invest more in teacher training — and depend more heavily on those who receive it. 

Teachers at all grade levels will receive training in math and reading intervention, with the goal they could then break students into smaller groups, delivering different levels of instruction. Some will have dedicated interventionists to aid them, but many won’t.

George Farkas, a distinguished professor emeritus of education and sociology at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s not easy for a teacher to simultaneously serve students at grade level and those below it without instructional aides to assist them. 

“I don’t think it’s possible for a teacher with a full class to do that,” Farkas said. “In addition, you know, these extra training programs don’t have a very good record in my reading of the literature.”

At Cohasset St. Elementary School in Van Nuys, former Primary Promise teacher Dana Sapper will continue to work in a similar interventionist role, though with the possibility of taking on students in more grades. 

“I’m happy because I’m going to be able to spread it into the upper grades. I think that that’s a lovely thing,” Sapper said. But still, she worries about the limits of her effectiveness. 

“There’s only so far you can spread yourself,” she said.

But Yolie Flores says the fact that some form of intervention will be reaching more students under the new model makes it extremely promising. 

“It’s not just a few that need intervention services. It’s, like, almost everybody,” she said. “Going from a pull-out [for] a few students to serving more students who need support in literacy is a good thing.” 

Primary Promise was introduced in 2020 by then supt. Austin Beutner with the goal of tackling LAUSD’s persistently low reading scores at the earliest level. 

By the 2022-23 school year, the program was running in 283 elementary schools. Teachers with specialized training would work with three to five struggling readers at a time, every day, on basic literacy skills like phonemic awareness and decoding. 

Parents, teachers, and Beutner himself have pointed to evidence that reading skills greatly improved under the program — which the district didn’t dispute.

“Of course it works,” Carvalho said at the June 6 board meeting. The problem, he said, had to do with Primary Promise’s reliance on pandemic aid set to expire in September 2024.

The one-year extension of the program using the anti-poverty funds will help schools transition into the new model, Carvalho said at last week’s board meeting. 

“With that said,” he added, “we’re going to be very clear and honest that there’s no guarantee that beyond next year we’re going to be able to use the same strategy.”

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