To try to make up for pandemic learning loss, educators and policymakers have searched for solutions that work and — just as important — are cost effective.
Now a new study, released Monday, reports positive results from a reading program in California that emphasized training teachers in the principles of the science of reading, a movement focused on foundational skills such as phonics, vocabulary and comprehension.
The program in about 70 low-performing schools yielded test-score gains for third graders in 2022 and 2023, on par with students having attended school for an additional quarter of a year in English and 12 percent of a year in math, according to a working paper by researchers at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
For about $1,000 per student annually, the program retrained teachers and administrators and paid for new classroom materials, better aligned to cognitive research.
The study, by Sarah Novicoff, a Stanford graduate student, and Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education, compared schools that participated in the program to a similar set of schools that did not. It has not yet been peer reviewed.
Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the paper’s results left him “very cautiously optimistic.”
He noted that education reforms that focus on the early grades often show positive results, but as students age into more conceptual learning, improvements fade out. “Will the schools build on this in any way?” he asked. “I get nervous about interventions that are just aimed at the youngest kids.”
The results are likely to draw attention from policymakers and educators because they come from some of the children hardest hit by the pandemic — those who come from low-income families and who were in kindergarten or first grade when the crisis began in March 2020, and least able to participate effectively in remote learning.
The intervention also took place during difficult years, with high rates of student absenteeism, mental health challenges and school staff shortages.
The program was significantly less expensive than lowering class sizes to the point where similar learning gains would be likely, Professor Dee and Ms. Novicoff noted. And the cost was on par with or less than many high-quality tutoring programs, another popular response to the pandemic.
The study could bolster the political push to overhaul reading instruction. For decades, cognitive research painted a clear picture of what children need to become strong readers, such as a broad vocabulary and understanding of phonics.
But evidence from inside classrooms was sparser. Reading First, a federal program under President George W. Bush that emphasized those foundational skills, improved decoding, but not comprehension. More recently, some research has suggested that state-level structured literacy reforms may need other, politically divisive, elements to succeed, such as requiring struggling students to repeat third grade.
The California study offers hope that carefully constructed science-of-reading reforms can work, without changes to grade-retention policies.
Some science-of-reading advocates have argued for strict restrictions on the curriculums and teaching methods available to schools, an approach embraced by New York City in its own reading reform efforts.
But educators involved in the California program, called the Elementary Literacy Support Block Grant, said a key element of its success was policymakers working collaboratively with school staff, instead of imposing a narrow set of reforms.
The program did not prescribe curriculums. Rather, after training school staff on reading research and how to use data to drive improvement, principals and their teams were able to chart their own path forward.
The program stems from a 2020 legal settlement between the state and a group of students and parents. They had sued years earlier, arguing that California was defying its own State Constitution by failing to provide “adequate access to literacy” in its schools. The state agreed to pay $53 million to help 75 low-performing elementary schools overhaul their reading programs.
At Joshua Elementary School in Lancaster, Calif., north of Los Angeles, staff members were paid to attend intensive training sessions. Lorraine Zapata, the principal, said her teachers embraced new, evidence-based methods and willingly let go of ineffective popular strategies such as three-cueing, in which children are prompted to guess words by looking at pictures and other context clues, instead of sounding out the letters.
While it can be difficult — even painful — for professionals to reconsider longtime practices, Ms. Zapata said the key was helping teachers understand the motivation for doing so.
“I never lost the message of, ‘Reading is a civil right,’” she said.
Susan Neuman, an early reading expert at New York University, characterized the gains reported by the study as modest.
She noted that the researchers did not offer information on which specific classroom-level changes led to improvements, and that the study considered only one outcome — third-grade test scores — and not more granular data, such as how kindergartners performed on phonics-specific assessments.
It is not unusual for promising educational gains to fail to scale up — a problem that policymakers in California say they want to avoid.
This grant program is ending, but Becky Sullivan, a Sacramento-based literacy expert who led the effort, will use another state grant to train staff in 800 schools, she said. She will also work with some California teachers’ colleges to shift how they prepare future educators.
The young plaintiffs from the reading lawsuit that prompted so much change have since aged out of the early grades targeted by the settlement. So while some of their schools participated in the state program, the plaintiffs did not directly benefit.
“These kids don’t have a year to waste,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the lawyers on the case. “They never get it back.”