California to create teaching credential covering pre-K through 3rd grade that requires literacy training

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

A preschool student shows his classmate a spider he made from pipe cleaners and a paper cup.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing agreed this week to create a new teaching credential for pre-kindergarten through third grade that will require teacher candidates to show they are trained in how to teach reading.

The decision came after the commission addressed criticisms that a separate credential that lacked  identical literacy instruction coursework and a reading performance test could undermine separate efforts to improve reading instruction in elementary grades.

The critics included two influential legislators who questioned whether the commission had the authority to establish an early childhood education teaching credential – particularly one that could “sidestep” reforms to teach foundational reading skills. The commission tried to assure them that wouldn’t happen.

Establishing an early childhood education credential has been talked about for years and was a recommendation in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020 Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. But it has gained urgency because of the phase-in by 2025 of transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds plus plans to expand state-funded pre-kindergarten.

The Palo Alto based Learning Policy Institute projects between 12,000 and 15,000 teachers will be needed to fill transitional kindergarten positions, and yet only about 8,000 new teachers – about an average of 1,000 teachers per grade – have annually been joining the teaching workforce by earning the existing TK-8 “multiple subject” credential.

Hanna Melnick of the institute said one source of TK teachers could be the estimated 29,000 child care teachers in California who already a hold bachelor’s degree, one of the prerequisites of the new credential; some of those could be women of color who staff many child-care centers.

Another source could be elementary school teachers who want to teach TK, with its smaller class sizes, if they take an additional 24 units of college courses on early child development, which would also qualify them for the new PK-3 Early Childhood Education Teaching Credential, as it will be formally called. As of August 2023, TK teachers who have a multiple subject credential will also have to have the additional credits in order for their districts to receive state funding for students in those classrooms.

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Beside filling vacancies, the new credential would improve learning, said Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early childhood authority who served on the governor’s task force.

California is one of few states in the country that hasn’t had a teaching credential focused on young children and one of the few in which most teachers receive their credential in a one-year program after earning a bachelor’s degree. “As dean of Stanford for 12 years, I was aware of the constraints to cram instruction through a multiple subject credential covering 3 to 13-year olds,” she said. “You can’t imagine how frustrating that is.”

It’s important that early education teachers fully understand the neuroscience and emotional growth of young children and that instruction in math, science and reading from grade to grade track their development, she said.

Third grade is critical in literacy development; the ability to read at grade level is a strong indicator of future success in school. And yet only 48.54% of all third graders in California met or exceeded standards in English language arts in 2019, the last year before the pandemic. Only 37% of low-income students, 31% of Black students and 38.5% Hispanic students were reading at grade level.

Battle over literacy standards

Last October, the Legislature decided that one answer to this problem is to revamp how teachers pursuing a multiple subject credential are instructed to teach reading in teacher preparation programs. Senate Bill 488 set up a 4-year plan to end the state’s Reading Instruction Competence Assessment or RICA, a multiple choice and short answer test with a low pass rate that many teachers revile as a poor method of measuring instructional competence (see readers’ comments to this EdSource article). Replacing it would be a literacy performance assessment that all multiple subject credential seekers must pass. In order to determine what the assessment would measure, the bill charged the credentialing commission with revising the teacher performance expectations for teaching reading. A 27-member working group is expected to complete a draft of these expectations this fall.

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Decoding Dyslexia CA and other advocates of reforming how reading is taught have hailed the passage of SB 488 but questioned whether it would apply to the PK-3 credential. After reading the proposal for the new credential the commission would consider, Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, the sponsor of the legislation, and Assemblyperson Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, concluded that it wouldn’t and opposed it in a June 13 letter to the commission.

“Establishing a new multiple subject credential administratively, for the very grades in which reading instruction competence is the most important, means that none of the protections in the law would apply,” they wrote in a June 13 letter, urging the commission not to proceed with the new credential.

Others expressed opposition or suggested alternatives.

“California has a literacy crisis and claims to be focused on getting all kids reading by 3rd grade. Instead, this new PK-3 ECE credential paves the way for teachers in K-3 classrooms who haven’t been trained in how to teach reading. It’s not fair to teachers and it’s not fair to kids,” said Lori DePole, co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA.

In a written comment, Rachel Hurd, a San Ramon Unified board member, suggested that the commission focus on the immediate need, a credential for transitional kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, and postpone a kindergarten to 3rd grade credential. “As a state, we cannot let a teacher shortage allow us to risk lowering the bar for any of our students. Further, setting teachers up for failure is the worst thing for teacher retention,” she wrote.

The California Teachers Association suggested creating a PK-3 strand within the multisubject credential and not a separate credential. “We value coherence across credentials and oppose any effort to fragment the teaching field,” it stated. The Association of California School Administrators favored exempting experienced child care teachers who qualified for an expedited PK-3 credential from taking the performance assessment.

But the proposed PK-3 credential also was enthusiastically supported by child-care advocates and universal transitional kindergarten supporters, including Kidango, the largest pre-school provider in the Bay Area, and Early Edge California.

In response to the comments, the commission staff revised its proposal four days before its June 15 meeting. It emphasized that subject matter requirements for PK-3 teacher preparation programs include rigorous age-appropriate instruction in math, English language arts including the teaching of reading, dyslexia and English Language Development. Candidates also should pass RICA or “an alternative Literacy Performance Assessment developed in response to SB 488.”

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But the revision also said that teacher prep programs could develop their own literacy performance assessment, technically already permitted under state law, as long as the commission approved it. This option angered literacy reformers like Todd Collins, a Palo Alto Unified board member and organizer of the California Reading Coalition, who called it an ”end-run around SB 488.”

After a lengthy discussion and many public comments, commissioners adopted the revised PK-3 proposal while specifying that reading standards adopted under SB 488 would fully apply. Commissioners clarified that any alternative literacy performance assessment proposed by a teacher preparation program must prove it will be as reliable and valid as a state assessment – a high bar that would be difficult to achieve, and rare, said Mary Vixie Sandy, the commission’s executive director.

After the vote, DePole of Decoding Dyxlexia said she was “encouraged” that the commission committed to including the new SB 488 literacy requirements in the new credential pathway and apply a new performance assessment to both multiple subject and PK-3 credential candidates.

Stipek urged the commission to adopt the proposal, which she said struck the right balance between a focus on child development and rigorous training in math and literacy instruction. “It’s as good as it is going to get now. It’s time to go to the next step,” she said.

The next step will be for the commission staff to draft regulations, incorporating the commission’s recommendations for standards and performance expectations, and then begin a months-long public comment and revision process. Universities and other credentialing programs would begin offering credential courses for the PK-3 credential in fall 2023.

Meanwhile, the workgroup for implementing SB 488 will continue drafting new literacy standards and teacher performance expectations toward the goal of replacing RICA with a performance assessment starting July 2025.

Supporters of SB 488 hope that the combination of stronger, research-based standards and the performance assessment will transform reading instruction statewide. Sandy is optimistic.

“Performance assessments drive learning more powerfully than standardized tests,” she said.

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