Early literacy funding raises reading scores of California’s lowest performing schools


Reading book

An elementary student reads on his own in class.

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Research by Stanford University found that 75 of the lowest-performing California elementary schools that received funding from an out-of-court settlement made significant progress on third-grade state Smarter Balanced tests this year.

The results indicate that the $50 million the schools received for effective reading instruction in the primary grades carried over to third grade after two years of funding. 

“The fact that we were able to budge third grade comprehension assessments with a grant that was focused on TK, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, with a light touch on third grade, is amazing,” said Margaret Goldberg, literacy coach at Nystrom Elementary in West Contra Costa Unified, one of the schools that received the Early Literacy Support Block Grants, or ELSBs.

The 75 schools had the lowest scores in the state in 2019 on the third-grade Smarter Balanced test. They received the money, averaging $1,144 per year for the 15,541 K-three students, under the settlement in the lawsuit, Ella T. v. the State of California, brought by the public interest law firm Public Counsel. It argued that the state violated the students’ constitutional right to an education by failing to teach them how to read adequately.

Eligible schools were chosen from various districts, including Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, West Contra Costa Unified and others. The funding promoted the literacy instruction known as the “science of reading,” which includes explicit phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade, along with the development of vocabulary, oral language, comprehension and writing.

Schools had the flexibility to choose to fund literacy coaches and bilingual reading specialists, new curriculum and instructional materials, expanded access to libraries and literacy training for parents. Schools were encouraged to participate in professional development in the science of reading and seek guidance on their literacy plans from the Sacramento County Office of Education, which oversaw the grants.

Released Monday, the study concluded that the block grants “generated significant (and cost-effective) improvements in English language arts achievement in its first two years of implementation as well as smaller, spillover improvements in math achievement,” wrote researchers Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and Sarah Novicoff, a Stanford doctoral candidate in educational policy.

Students in the funded schools were scoring at the bottom of the scale in 2019, and, despite significant progress, few had achieved reading at grade level in 2023. Dee and Novicoff credited the early education grant for increasing third graders’ achievement by 0.14 standard deviation, the equivalent of a 25% increase in a year of learning, compared with demographically similar students who did not receive the funding. Researchers also found a similar gain by comparing the scores of third graders in the schools with the grants with third-grade scores of fifth graders from the same schools who had not benefited from the funding.

The Smarter Balanced reports results in four performance bands: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met and standard exceeded. The schools with the grants succeeded in raising scores by 6 percentage points from the lowest category to standard nearly met, significantly reducing the number of students requiring intensive help. Still, after two years of funding, only 13.5% of students are proficient in reading, having met or exceeded standard. That’s 3 percentage points higher than in 2018, and 1 percentage point above pre-pandemic 2019. Schools with similar students not receiving the grants remain below where they were before Covid, according to the research.

Dee and Novicoff were unable to analyze why some schools performed better than others, which could be useful in shaping the state’s policy on early literacy. Unlike some states with comprehensive literacy plans, California does not collect any assessment data that school districts collect from TK to second grade. And, under the rules that the state negotiated in the settlement, participating schools were not required to submit their assessment data to the California Department of Education; most voluntarily did in the second year, but many did not in the first year. It’s also unclear how many schools adhered to their literacy plans or focused on less effective or ineffective strategies for improvement. 

Researchers used the only complete set of state-level data to which they had access — third-grade reading comprehension assessments. Those scores may have understated the progress in reading that many schools made on district assessments in the first and second grades.

Public Counsel filed the Ella T. v. the State of California lawsuit in 2017, and the settlement went into effect during the height of the pandemic. Dee said the early success of the program during Covid, amid teacher shortages and extremely high chronic absences, made the results even more striking. 

The third graders who took the Smarter Balanced test in 2023 “were the hardest hit by the pandemic. They were in kindergarten when it was interrupted by Covid,” Goldberg said. “They attended first grade remotely. In second grade, in schools like mine, which chose to adopt new curriculum, their teachers had never taught the curriculum before.”

Dee noted the academic gains from the grant were relatively large compared with the cost, making the program quite cost-effective — an effect size that is 13 times higher than general, untargeted spending.

Goldberg said the grant was efficient “because early intervention is cheaper and it’s more effective than waiting until third grade or later grades to provide reading support.”

The grant funding ends in June 2024. Dee said whether schools can sustain improved scores without specific funding support is an open question. Novicoff mentioned that the grant schools may be able to continue receiving support for literacy coaches and reading specialists if they receive funding from the new Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist Grant program. 

Instead of being based on performance, the literacy coach grants are awarded to schools with high unduplicated pupil percentages, or the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced meals, are English language learners or are foster youth. Schools eligible for an early literacy grant may also qualify for a literacy coach grant. 

Dee said design and implementation are key if the state hopes to continue or scale this success. This means paying close attention to school-based literacy action plans, oversight and resources with some flexibility. “This is a story about how schools that get money tend to do better — money does matter in schools, and this is another piece of evidence into that bucket,” Novicoff said, “but it also shows that what we can do with the money and how you structure that funding really does matter.”





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