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Reading, Writing, And Readiness For College And Career: A Policy Forum On Adolescent Literacy Instruction


Sponsored by
The California Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education
In partnership with
The Association of California School Administrators, California Teachers Association, Curriculum and Instruction Committee of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, and the Comprehensive Assistance Center at West Ed
With support from 
Carnegie Corporation of New York

NOTE: Due to technical difficulties, audio and video from the event are not available.

On May 30, more than sixty of California’s most influential education leaders came together for a special one-day policy forum on adolescent literacy instruction, hosted by the California Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education, in partnership with the Association of California School Administrators, the California Teachers Association, the California County Superintendents Education Services Association, and the Comprehensive Assistance Center at WestEd. The event was made possible through the financial support of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

For years, California’s educators have come together to learn about new research and best practices that can help them target instruction for reading and literacy in middle and high school. At the Secondary Literacy Summit VII in March 2007, cosponsored by all of the aforementioned organizations (except the Alliance for Excellent Education), approximately 700 teachers and school administrators were in attendance for this purpose. Given the very strong and growing interest of educators in adolescent literacy, this policy forum was designed to broaden the conversation to include some key policymakers to take stock of adolescent literacy reform initiatives underway in the state and to begin thinking about defining a clear statewide agenda for adolescent literacy support.

Jack O’Connell, California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, opened the day by discussing the urgent need to improve middle and high school literacy instruction throughout the state, so that greater numbers of students will be prepared to succeed in postsecondary education and career training programs. He noted that reading and writing are essential to success in all of the academic content areas, and he argued that advanced literacy skills have become increasingly valuable in the global economy, which puts a high premium on individuals’ ability to make sense of complex ideas and communicate clearly and effectively to many different audiences.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former Governor of West Virginia, echoed O’Connell in calling for increased attention to and investment in adolescent literacy instruction. Further, he observed that the federal government must play a valuable role in this effort, as has been argued by supporters of the Striving Readers Act, a bi-partisan bill sponsored by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Representatives John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Todd R. Platts (R-PA).

To begin the day’s discussion, Phil LaFontaine, director of the Professional Development and Curriculum Support Division of the California Department of Education, used national and state data to reveal the adolescent literacy challenge (see link to PowerPoint presentation).

Ruth Schoenbach, Co-Director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, noted that while the scope of this problem is significant, a great deal is already known about what works for older students and that the country is well placed to move forward with programs that help older students develop the reading, writing, and comprehension skills needed to succeed academically. She described research-based strategies for helping students develop habits of inquiry that can be used across all content areas. At the same time, however, she cautioned that when teachers face excessive pressure to cover the discrete pieces of academic content listed in most state standards documents, they often respond by skimming over the surface of the material, rather than than engaging students in the more substantial kinds of reading and writing activities and classroom conversations.

Beverly Young, Assistant Vice-Chancellor of California State University (CSU), opened the luncheon discussion of “California Building Blocks for Adolescent Literacy Success” by describing CSU’s Early Assessment Program, a nationally recognized collaboration between the university, the State Board of Education, and the California Department of Education. The program provides the opportunity for students to learn about their readiness for college-level English (and mathematics) in their junior year of high school, and it facilitates opportunities for them to improve their skills during their senior year.  In addition to preventing students from being required to take remediation courses upon enrollment at a CSU campus, the program also offers support to schools and teachers.  County offices of education and CSU together offer four-day Expository Reading and Writing workshops for English teachers and CSU campuses offer 80-hour Reading Institutes for Academic Preparation which are designed to foster academic literacy across the curriculum.

Joyce Wright, Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee at the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, described the County Course of Study, a tool for teachers and administrators to develop, refine, and implement a system-wide literacy plan for student success. Nine Essential Program Components foster coherence by aligning curriculum with professional development and monitoring student achievement.  She noted the importance of careful assessment, course placement, and differentiated instruction for success in middle and high school literacy.

Sheri McDonald, Language Arts Coordinator at the Orange County Office of Education, extended the discussion of the County Course of Study, focusing specifically on its recommendations for major investments in pre- and in-service teacher education. Noting that relatively few of California secondary-level teachers have received essential training in literacy instruction, she called for new professional development offerings in literacy assessment, the teaching of generic reading comprehension strategies, and the teaching of reading and writing skills specific to each academic content area.

Michael Kirst, Emeritus Professor of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University, described the enormous social and economic costs associated with poor academic performance by students attending California’s community colleges. Even as enrollments skyrocket, completion rates in 2-year programs are low and stagnant, and transfer rates to 4-year programs are negligible. The state faces an urgent need, argued Kirst, to better align high school reading and writing instruction with the course assignments that students encounter in the first two years of postsecondary education.

Margarita Calderón, Senior Research Scientist and Professor at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, reminded participants how many students are restricted by limited vocabularies and background knowledge, both of which must be addressed in order for them to develop the strong literacy skills they will need to succeed in the modern postsecondary institution or workplace.  She also underscored the issue of students with interrupted formal education (SIFE), citing the need for intense and appropriate remediation for these students.

During a period during which all attendees were invited to join in an open discussion, attention was given to the need to balance content and intensive remediation in any adolescent literacy initiative.  The importance of assessments for students, teachers, schools and the state were discussed.  And there were discussions of what real inquiry-based learning looked like.  The need to promote an academically challenging career technical education program was discussed.

In closing, Anthony Monreal, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at the California Department of Education, expressed an interest in learning how other states are working to meet the challenges associated with adolescent literacy.  He also recognized the need for systems change to address these challenges and the imperative that they be successfully addressed to give all students real opportunity for the future.  Noting that his wife is a reading intervention teacher, he suggested that this meeting represented an opportune time to bring together diverse groups to talk about how to prioritize this issue and indicated a desire to continue the conversation.

I. Welcome and Introduction

Jack O’Connell
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Bob Wise
President, Alliance for Excellent Education and Former Governor, West Virginia

II. Achievement Trends and Research in Adolescent Literacy: An Overview

Phil LaFontaine
Director, Professional Development and Curriculum Support Division, California Department of Education

PowerPoint Presentation: Reading, Writing, and Readiness for College and Career: A Policy Forum on Adolescent Literacy Instruction

III. Literacy in Adolescence: What the Research Tells Us

Ruth Schoenbach
Co-Director, Strategic Literacy Initiative, WestEd

IV. Discussion/Q&A with presenters

V. Luncheon Panel: California Building Blocks for Adolescent Literacy Success

Moderator: Beverly L. Young
Assistant Vice Chancellor, Teacher Education and Public School Programs California State University

Joyce Wright
Chair, Curriculum and Instruction Steering CommitteeCalifornia County Superintendents Educational Services Association

Sheri McDonald
Language Arts Coordinator, Orange County Office of Education

Michael W. Kirst
Emeritus Professor of Education and Business AdministrationStanford University

Margarita Calderón
Senior Research Scientist and Professor, School of EducationJohns Hopkins University

VI. Discussion/Q&A with presenters

VII. Closing Remarks and Wrap-Up

Anthony Monreal
Deputy Superintendent, Curriculum and InstructionCalifornia Department of Education

Bob Wise

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