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LAUSD schools roll out science of reading and training, state lawmakers reject mandate

Ben Chapman | April 30, 2024

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Los Angeles Unified is pushing ahead with district-wide lesson plans based on the science of reading even after state lawmakers rejected legislation requiring the curriculum.

About half of the 434 elementary schools in the nation’s second-largest school system have already adopted lessons aligned to the phonics-based science of reading, according to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. The district is aiming for the method to be used in all elementary schools in the coming 2024-25 academic year.

The project brings Los Angeles in line with other large districts around the country, such as New York City, which have also begun implementing evidence-backed tactics for teaching literacy, amid a national reading crisis.

But LAUSD faces some unique obstacles. A report released in February by the advocacy group Families in Schools detailed gaps in instruction and disconnects between parents and teachers on how to teach reading. 

LAUSD lags in reading scores behind other districts in California, a state with one of the lowest literacy rates in the country.  

LA Unified’s plan also places California’s largest district at odds with state lawmakers, who this month tabled a bill that would require reading instruction based on decoding words using letters and a focus on phonics. 

The proposed law, which was backed by groups including the California State PTA and the NAACP, died in committee after the state teachers union and English learner groups registered their opposition. 

The legislature’s rejection of the bill swung the nation’s most populous state away from a national trend for mandates of science-based reading instruction. 

Dozens of states have taken up such laws and policies, including Mississippi, Ohio, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. 

The push for a unified, evidence-based approach to literacy instruction faces obstacles in Los Angeles Unified, where only about a quarter of students met reading standards on the most recent assessments. 

The district in June replaced a key intervention program aimed at boosting reading and math skills for struggling elementary school students that had employed materials based on the science of reading.  

The new approach, known as the Literacy and Numeracy Intervention Model, will cost less and reach middle school students as well, according to district officials.

Carvalho said in a December interview that the district had made “significant progress” in rolling out a unified set of curricular options aligned to the science of reading to elementary schools under the effort, and that by June 2024 it would “achieve systemic adoption for all grade levels.”

Last month he adjusted the timeline, saying in a subsequent interview that all elementary schools would have access to the materials by the start of the upcoming academic year in August. 

The superintendent said the district would use the extra time over the summer to conduct training for teachers on the new instructional approaches and materials.

“I think we’re actually in a good place so far, considering the size of our district,” said Carvalho. “It’s a massive undertaking.” 

Under the district’s new approach, Carvalho said, schools will choose from a menu of curricula that contain approaches to literacy instruction including phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. 

The so-called “science of reading” approach favored by LAUSD and many other districts today stands in contrast to the “whole-language” theory once employed by many schools, which emphasized learning to read by using visual cues and words the student already knows, rather than decoding the sounds of their letters.

“There will be a number of reading series, all meeting the criteria, and then principals and their school councils have the flexibility to adopt for their own school, any one of the ones that meet the criteria,” said Carvalho. 

The adoption of a unified approach to reading instruction will provide consistency across schools and bolster the education of transfer students in a district with large numbers of transient kids, Carvalho contended.   

Four decades of research show the science of reading works, Carvalho said, with more recent studies showing it can boost literacy rates for struggling students and reverse declines in pandemic learning loss. 

A recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that test scores at 66 of California’s lowest-performing schools jumped after educators adopted approaches in line with the science of reading.  

Students in several other states have already exceeded pre-pandemic literacy levels by employing curriculum with explicit phonics instruction, according to a Brown University analysis of test score data.

Carvalho said Los Angeles schools that have already begun using the district’s approved literacy materials and teaching methods have embraced the changes and begun to show some academic progress.  

Students at Esperanza Elementary School in Westlake have made significant gains on reading assessments following the adoption of phonics-based teaching materials and methods promoted by the district, from Core Knowledge Language Arts, said principal Brad Rumble. 

Less than half of first graders at the school met reading benchmarks before the roll-out of phonics-based lessons began in 2021, according to Rumble, but 65% met standards this year. Likewise, the principal said, second graders reading on grade level rose from 39% to 61%. 

“We start with the sounds, and then we move to more complex skills, like decoding and sight recognition,” Rumble explained. “We don’t just forget what we’ve learned.” 

Students at the school tackle vocabulary development and the understanding of language structure, becoming fluent readers by grade three, Rumble said, “and then, those fluent readers comprehend what they’re reading.”

Core Knowledge Language Arts help teachers at Esperanza Elementary build systematic reading lessons, said Rumble. The gains made by students at his school point the way that Carvalho wants the rest of the district to go.   

With high numbers of students living in poverty, and large populations of homeless children and immigrant families, Los Angeles Unified faces special challenges in reading instruction.     

The Families in Schools report found that just 15% of parents knew what their schools reading curriculum was, while only about half said they had the tools to help their child learn reading. 

Just 40% of Los Angeles students can read at grade level by third grade, the report notes, with just 9% of English learners meeting standards. By eighth grade, less than 1% of English learners met standards.

The report lauded LAUSD’s new efforts to educate teachers in the science of reading and instruct parents to teach literacy at home, but said a “greater, long-term commitment is needed,” to build on recent, slight gains in test scores.  

The group’s CEO Yolie Flores, a former vice president of the LAUSD Board of Education, said the district can do better. 

“Families understand that if their children can’t read, it’s essentially game over,” said Flores. “This is why we urge Superintendent Carvalho and the LAUSD board of education to deepen its efforts.”

Flores said Carvalho’s promise to put the science of reading in every Los Angeles elementary school is a step in the right direction. The district now needs to ensure the new lessons are implemented, she said.   

“We can’t keep kicking the proverbial can down the road,” said Flores.   

Carvalho said that so far he’s heard few complaints with the program, although some concerns have been raised by members of the English-language learning community, he said, with what can been seen as a one-size-fits all approach of uniform curricula. 

The local teachers union, he said, has not registered any opposition to the project. United Teachers Los Angeles did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. 

Although other states have had success in legislative mandates for evidence-based reading instruction, California lawmakers dropped a proposed law after the state’s largest teachers union registered its opposition. 

In a letter opposing the legislation, the California Teachers Association said the bill  would duplicate current literacy programs and limit teachers’ discretion in serving diverse student populations, including English learners. 

Separately, advocates for English learners also sent letters to lawmakers in opposition to the bill, saying the state needs a plan that “centrally addresses” the needs of bilingual students.   

California assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a Democrat and teacher who authored the bill, said her own time in the classroom informed her belief in phonics-based instruction. 

“For me, it is not one size fits all approach,” said Rubio. “The science of reading takes into account the research on how kids best learn to read. When I was a teacher, we set goals and we used the data to inform our instruction.”  

Carvalho, who supported Rubio’s bill, said results from state reading assessments taken by LA Unified students this spring will help determine whether the district’s roll-out of evidence-based reading instruction is working.   

Regardless, the superintendent is confident in the district’s new approach to literacy instruction. “I’m a true believer that the basics of reading instruction and philosophy, must be rooted in a science of reading,” Carvalho said.

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