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.
Major news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, heralded the paper, “The Achievement Effects of Scaling Early Literacy Reforms,” as justification for implementation of science of reading– aligned instruction, but the report’s official summary is less conclusive: “While policymakers have demonstrated considerable enthusiasm for ‘science of reading’ initiatives, the evidence on the impact of related reforms when implemented at scale is limited. In this pre-registered, quasi-experimental study, we examine California’s recent initiative to improve early literacy across the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The Early Literacy Support Block Grant (ELSBG) provided teacher professional development grounded in the science of reading as well as aligned supports (e.g., assessments and interventions), new funding (about $1,000 per student), spending flexibility within specified guidelines, and expert facilitation and oversight of school-based planning. We find that ELSBG generated significant (and cost-effective) improvements in ELA achievement in its first two years of implementation (0.14 SD) as well as smaller, spillover improvements in math achievement.”
The study, from researchers Sarah Novicoff and Thomas Dee, examines the impact of California’s Early Literacy Support Block Grant, which aims to support K–3 instruction in state schools with at least third-grade reading scores. Beginning in the 2020–21 school year, the program provides more than $50 million in new state funding for literacy initiatives with a focus on science of reading–aligned pedagogy.
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 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–3 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.
The study concluded that the block grant “generated significant (and costeffective) 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.
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 is also unclear how many schools adhered to their literacy plans or focused on less effective or ineffective strategies for improvement.
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.”