‘Right-to-read’ settlement spurred higher reading scores in California’s lowest performing schools, study finds

“I wouldn’t call the results super large. I would call them cost effective,” said Jennifer Jennings, a sociologist at Princeton University who was not involved in the study, but attended a presentation of the research in November.

A working paper, “The Achievement Effects of Scaling Early Literacy Reforms,” was posted to the website of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University on Dec. 4, 2023. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and may still be revised.

Thomas Dee, an economist at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who conducted the analysis with doctoral student Sarah Novicoff, says that the reading improvements at the weakest schools in California bolster the evidence for the so-called “science of reading” approach, which has become associated with phonics instruction, but also includes pre-phonics sound awareness, reading fluency, vocabulary building and comprehension skills. Thus far, the best real-world evidence for the science of reading comes from Mississippi, where reading scores dramatically improved after schools changed how they taught reading. But there’s also been a debate over whether the state’s policy to hold weak readers back in third grade has been a bigger driver of the test score gains than the instructional changes.

The structure of the right-to-read settlement offers a possible blueprint for how to bring evidence-based teaching practices into more classrooms, says Stanford’s Dee. School administrators and teachers both received training in the science of reading approach, but then schools were given the freedom to create their own plans and spend their share of the settlement funds as they saw fit within certain guidelines. The Sacramento County Office of Education served as an outside administrator, approving plans and overseeing them.

“How to drive research to inform practice within schools and within classrooms is the central problem we face in education policy,” said Dee. “When I look at this program, it’s an interesting push and pull of how to do that. Schools were encouraged to do their own planning and tailor what they were doing to their own circumstances. But they also had oversight from a state-designated agency that made sure the money was getting where it was supposed to, that they were doing things in a well-conceived way.”

Some schools hired reading coaches to work with teachers on a regular basis. Others hired more aides to tutor children in small groups. Schools generally elected to spend most of the settlement money on salaries for new staff and extra compensation for current teachers to undergo retraining and less on new instructional materials, such as books or curriculums. By contrast, New York City’s current effort to reform reading instruction began with new curriculum requirements and teachers are complaining that they haven’t received the training to make the new curriculum work.

It’s unclear if this combination of retraining and money would be as effective in typical schools. The lowest performing schools that received the money tended to be staffed by many younger, rookie teachers who were still learning their craft. These new teachers may have been more open to adopting a new science of reading approach than veteran teachers who have years of experience teaching another way.

That teacher retraining victory may foretell a short-lived success story for the students in these schools. The reason that there were so many new teachers is because teachers quickly burn out and leave high-poverty schools. The newly trained teachers in the science of reading may soon quit too. There’s a risk that all the investment in better teaching could soon evaporate. I’ll be curious to see their reading scores a few years from now.

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