New literacy standards for teacher candidates could be pivotal to improving student reading scores

Cortez Deacetis

As cratering test scores intensify California’s resolve to improve student reading, one thing appears certain: the state’s newest teachers need to know how to teach literacy using foundational reading skills, including phonics.

A set of new literacy standards and teaching performance expectations, approved by the California commission that issues teaching credentials, should ensure all universities are on the same page when it comes to training future educators. It also is the first step toward replacing the unpopular Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, which teachers are required to pass before earning a credential.

The literacy standards, mandated by state legislation, put a greater emphasis on teaching foundational reading skills that include phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. The new standards also included support for struggling readers, English learners, and pupils with exceptional needs. The California Dyslexia Guidelines  have been incorporated for the first time.

Teacher preparation programs have until Sept. 1, 2024 to begin teaching to the new literacy standards.

“I think they (the commission) captured the thing that teachers need to know to teach effectively and, for the first time, put them into the TPE (teaching performance expectations) and literacy standards,” said Todd Collins, organizer of the California Reading Coalition. “If certification works the way it is supposed to work, then teachers will have what they need to effectively teach reading in the early grades.”

Standards based on brain research

Jyothi Bathina, a member of the working group and co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Reading and Writing at California State University, calls the new standards a substantial pivot for California.

 “There has always been an emphasis on phonics, but the implementation hasn’t always been effective across programs,” Bathina said.

She said the expert group looked for the best way to provide literacy instruction based on brain research. “It’s a solid research-based method,” she said of the teaching standards.

The literacy standards now better align with the science of reading and in training teachers in early identification and intervention of reading risk, including risk of dyslexia, that is critical to improving literacy outcomes, said Lori DePole, co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, an advocacy group that championed the changes.

The guidelines include an understanding of the characteristics of dyslexia, how to identify students at risk of dyslexia, and how to provide interventions that are based on a structured literacy approach to instruction, she said. Structured literacy emphasizes foundational reading skills, such as phonics, as well as reading comprehension and writing.

Reading changes nationwide

The new teaching expectations come amid a national push to change how reading is being taught, especially to the youngest learners. States nationwide are rethinking balanced literacy, which has its roots in whole language instruction or teaching children to recognize words by sight, and replacing it with lessons that teach them to decode words by sounding them out, a process known as phonics.

In discussions about the new push, experts have said that teachers are the key to student success. While California has not specified that districts follow a specific curriculum, the new standards and teaching performance expectations are seen as a significant step toward a statewide strategy for how to teach reading.

The primary difference between the new California standards and their predecessor is that they more clearly identify and list teaching performance expectations, and add direction for literacy instruction for English learners and children with disabilities, said Sue Sears, a professor at CSU Northridge who also was a member of the expert group that created the standards.

The updated standards and teacher performance expectations together give the state a comprehensive literacy plan that ensures that teacher candidates are able to demonstrate high-quality literacy instruction, she said.

Like much of the nation, California students lost ground in literacy over the pandemic. Smarter Balanced test scores released this week show that fewer than half of students met the state standards in English language arts in 2022, a drop of 4 percentage points from 2018-19.

The working group of literacy experts that created the new standards and teaching expectations are hopeful they will help improve student outcomes. The group used state literacy policies and guidance, including the state’s English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework and the California Comprehensive State Literacy Plan, as well as the California Dyslexia Guidelines to guide their work.

The English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework’s 1,063 pages include an emphasis on explicit instruction in foundational skills in the early grades. As with other of the state’s academic frameworks, they are not required to be followed.

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, said the new standards “should ensure that all incoming teachers have access to the knowledge base for teaching literacy skills, grounded in a comprehensive understanding of the science of reading and the science of language learning for multilingual students, students with reading or language disabilities, and all other students. These standards will be used in accrediting preparation programs and guiding strong literacy practices in schools.”

Even if universities effectively teach the new standards, ultimately it will be up to school districts to ensure their teachers use them to guide instruction.

“The buy-in has to be that their kids do better, and the buy in has to be student outcomes,” Sears said. “It’s hard to improve student outcomes because there are so many things that go into student outcomes. The biggest ones are teacher quality and quality instruction.”

Teachers to get new literacy assessment

The legislation that created the standards also mandates that the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA, be replaced by a literacy performance assessment that will allow teacher candidates to show their ability to teach literacy in a classroom setting. The commission is creating a working group of experts to design the assessment, which must be in place by July 1, 2025.

The RICA is outdated and not aligned to the state’s current English language arts/English language development framework, which guides how students are taught in K-12 classrooms, said state Sen. Susan Rubio, a former public school teacher who authored the legislation.

“By updating the performance assessment standards, the Legislature has given higher education a literacy tool to help teacher candidates demonstrate they are well-prepared to teach students how to read,” she said. 

There were 19,666 new teachers credentialed during the 2020-21 school year, a 9.3% increase over the previous year. California has more than 300,000 credentialed teachers working in its schools.

In 2019 the National Council for Teacher Quality asked California lawmakers to reconsider abandoning the RICA, saying the state should shift its attention to mandating that teacher preparation programs train teachers how to teach reading.

That year a study by the organization found that only 31% of the state’s 69 traditional teacher preparation programs for elementary school teachers covered all five of the essential foundational skills in lectures, coursework, instruction, materials, assignments and assessments. It found that 75% of California’s programs covered comprehension, 63% phonics, 59% vocabulary, 53% phonemic awareness and 44% fluency, said Nicole Gerber, communications director for the organization. 

Commission to double down on enforcement

The next challenge is to ensure the standards and teaching expectations are being used in all teacher preparation programs and that the commission enforces the requirement, said DePole of Decoding Dyslexia CA. She would like the state to give the commission additional funds to hire literacy experts to provide technical assistance to teacher preparation programs and to review programs to ensure they are following the standards.

The implementation of the new standards requires continuous scrutiny, with legislators and advocates making sure the commission is doing its job and the commission ensuring universities teach to the standards, Collins agreed.

“We can’t say this is done and move on to something else and not do this anymore,” he said. “I think that is what happened before.”

Every California teacher preparation program is required to prove it is teaching literacy based on the new standards before its students can take the new performance assessment. After that initial review by the state, programs will undergo an assessment of their literacy instruction every seven years as part of the accreditation process.

“These standards and set of performance expectations for literacy put a premium on and high expectations for teacher preparation programs within their curriculum,” said Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing at the October meeting.

Commission staff will work with teacher preparation programs to help them update their programs, Sandy said.

“This is a huge opportunity for us over the next two years to work with teacher preparation faculty across all these credential areas to unpack and go deep,” she said.

The standards will require some schools to make small changes and others larger changes, depending on the current teaching methods, but CSU’s Bathina doesn’t think that professors and administrators of the programs will resist.

 “I think we have been looking for good solid guidance from the state,” she said.

Retired teacher wishes she had known about foundational skills

Judith Reising wishes she had learned about foundational reading skills when she was a teacher candidate in the early 1970s. She earned her credential in 1972, well before a test to measure knowledge of literacy instruction was required. She didn’t learn how to effectively teach reading until 2004, three years before she retired.

“My only regret is that I didn’t know how to really teach them how to read,” she said. “I feel so sorry. I wish I could take those kids back and give them a second chance. They didn’t reach their reading potential because the system we used didn’t work. I feel even worse that I worked in primarily low-income neighborhoods.”

Since her retirement from teaching in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, Reising has been working as a reading consultant with the district and a tutor for students with dyslexia. She now finds success where there once was failure. Reising recently helped a high school senior pass his high school exit exam. The teen couldn’t read a first-grade level book when he was first sent to her for help. He had never been taught to decode words — to manipulate sounds and words and attach letters to those sounds, she said.

“What we have found, and research has found, is that you need to teach kids the foundational skills, which means they need to decode words, starting with phonemic awareness,” she said. “ If you skip decoding, children don’t know how to read.”

California’s teacher candidates have struggled to pass the required Reading Instruction Competence Assessment. Between 2010 and 2017, 32.6% of teacher candidates who took the RICA failed it the first time, according to commission data.

The cumulative passage rate for the same period of time was 91%. That means that almost a quarter of the teachers who eventually passed the exam had to take it at least two times at the cost of about $200 for each test. Some paid hundreds of dollars more to a cottage industry of businesses built around helping teachers pass the test.

How much training do teacher candidates receive in literacy?

It’s typical for a teacher preparation program to offer two three-unit classes in literacy instruction.

At CSU Northridge, every teacher candidate takes a class on reading instruction and another on writing and working with children in bilingual education, Sears said. She expects universities will have to spread out instruction on the new expanded standards across other courses, including methods courses.

“It’s never sufficient,” she said of the amount of training on literacy instruction provided at the universities. “You look at these standards, and you say, ‘Oh, my goodness, teachers need to know all of this?’ We expect them to know all of this, and we have a teacher shortage. Is it sufficient? I think it’s a good start.”

Existing teachers can tap into soon-to-be-available learning modules focused on dyslexia but Collins, a Palo Alto school board member, wants teachers to get the same literacy training that teacher candidates will get.

“Some states have made available or mandated in-service courses that give them the skills that teacher preparation has given to their new teachers. That is probably what we need to do,” said Collins, who has called for a comprehensive state-level plan to improve student reading. “Districts can do this on their own, and some do. But the state needs to step up and make sure existing teachers have the same type of preparation.”


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