How do we know if a school district is doing one of its most basic jobs—teaching students to read? That’s one of the main questions the California Reading Coalition, which I helped organize earlier this year, set out to answer with the California Reading Report Card, released in September.
Early reading achievement has gained increasing popular attention with the emergence of the “science of reading” and the success of Mississippi (and before it, Florida) in raising fourth grade NAEP reading scores, especially for low-income and Black and Brown students.
In California, reading results are grim. The state ranks fortieth in fourth grade NAEP reading for all students, and thirty-first for Latino students, who make up almost half of our 6 million students (Florida and Mississippi are first and and second for Latino students, respectively). Two out of every three low-income Black and Latino California students are below grade level.
But reading is tricky, since schools aren’t the only place kids learn to read. Particularly in families with affluence and educational attainment, learning to read starts at home, with everything from bedtime stories to direct phonics instruction. It’s not surprising that in California, over 75 percent of high-income White and Asian third graders read at grade level. Even if the school fails them, their parents can pick them up.
That’s why we focused on one group to measure school success: low-income Latino third graders. First, when comparing district performance, this gives us an “apples to apples” comparison. Otherwise, the comparison tells us more about district demographics than school performance. Second, since low-income Latino students make up 43 percent of all California students, almost all districts have a good number of them, and they report out results in state accountability testing. California has over 1,000 school districts, so that gives us a lot of data points to compare.
Finally, since these students are lower-income and in many cases come from families with lower educational attainment, they are more dependent on the school for learning to read. If the school fails an affluent student, she will usually learn to read well anyway; mom and dad will make sure of it. But if they fail to teach the low-income Latino student, that child will almost certainly fall behind.
In our Report Card, we rank the 287 California districts with 100 or more low-income Latino third graders The findings contain some real surprises:
- Even the best districts are not doing well enough. Only twelve districts statewide have 50 percent or more low-income Latino third graders reading at grade level; only one has over 60 percent. In the best performing districts, half of these kids are still behind.
- The best-performing districts are not the usual suspects. Eight out of the top thirty districts have over 80 percent high-need students, located in places like Hawthorne (ten minutes from Los Angeles International Airport) and rural Firebaugh in the Central Valley. The same is true of low-performers: The bottom thirty districts include well-known districts like Palo Alto, where 80 percent of low-income Latino students were below grade level.
- Neither funding nor the student demographics (percent of high-need students) has a meaningful relationship to where districts rank. High-ranked districts actually have lower funding per pupil, on average, than lower ranked districts, despite similar student demographics. And some of the state’s highest funded districts, like San Francisco, Oakland, and Palo Alto, are at the bottom of the rankings.
One of the most surprising findings is the dramatic difference between regions. Southern California, and especially Los Angeles County (home to forty-eight ranked districts, including the huge Los Angeles Unified) dominate the rankings. In Los Angeles County, half of the ranked districts are in the top 20 percent statewide, and none are in the bottom 20 percent. Fresno County, in California’s Central Valley, has similar results.
But San Francisco Bay Area districts have shockingly low results. Not a single one is in the state’s top 20 percent, while more than half of the region’s ranked districts are in the bottom 20 percent. Prominent and highly-funded Bay Area districts like San Francisco, Oakland, and West Contra Costa are among the state’s lowest performing.
What’s behind these dramatic gaps? One obvious reason is that schools in Southern California focus more on student achievement. The head of Anaheim’s Magnolia Elementary School District (sixteenth in our rankings, with 87 percent high-need students) last year published an opinion piece on “Why Test Scores Matter,” vigorously defending his low-income Latino district’s uncompromising (and successful) commitment to achieving high test scores, especially for their high-need students. That’s a sentiment one rarely hears from Bay Area district leaders.
Given California’s huge size, it’s not surprising that its regions develop independent norms and cultures. If all the schools in a region have low scores for high-need kids, it seems more acceptable. One of the Reading Report Card’s goals is to give both educators and communities a tool to ask the basic question, “Why are our kids doing so much less well than that other district?”
One of the most important findings is that any district can be successful at teaching reading. The best performers do not have special funding, unusual students, or unique curricula and instruction. They focus on reading and early student achievement as top district priorities, and do not accept the low results of most of their peers.