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Science of Reading Protected Achievement in California’s Lowest-Performing Schools During COVID-19

Like their colleagues nationwide, California educators have struggled to teach students how to read, especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds. Some schools are so consistently ranked at the bottom of achievement in elementary English language arts (ELA) that in 2017, students and their families brought a suit against California’s Department of Education for denying them the right to an education. In 2021, the state committed $50 million in Early Literacy Support Block (ELSB) grants to help the 75 lowest-performing schools systematically redesign and align TK–third-grade literacy instruction and support programs.

Starting in December 2020, Pivot Learning and its subsidiary, CORE Learning¹, partnered with the grant’s lead experts in literacy at the Sacramento County of Education. The goal was to support school-based teams of educators to develop and begin implementing three-year Literacy Action Plans. The diagram below illustrates the program’s interlocking components.

In Year 1, experts from Pivot/CORE led teams of educators at each site in root-cause analysis and a needs assessment to identify their greatest strengths for and barriers to developing their students’ literacy. They then provided the teams and their colleagues additional professional learning in the science of reading and direct support to implement their plans in Years 2 and 3. Specifically, teams of teachers and literacy coaches participated in CORE Learning’s Online Elementary Reading Academy² while district and site leaders attended the Reading Fundamentals for Leadership Institute. Professional development experts at Pivot/CORE also supported site-based literacy teams in developing scalable literacy strategies from rapid Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles in the latter two years. With a combination of professional learning and hands-on support, educators could better understand and meet their students’ needs. Educators could then improve student literacy, measured partly by ELA achievement.

Recent research by Stanford University found precisely those outcomes. As the researchers put it, “ELSBG³ significantly increased Grade-3 ELA achievement by 0.14 [standard deviations] (i.e., roughly 25 percent of a year of learning at this age).” However, focusing on “average effects” may hide critical distinctions in student outcomes for different groups. At UnboundEd and CORE Learning, we understand that closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will require our programs to demonstrate tangible outcomes for Black, Brown, and low-income students.

Descriptive analyses by researchers at UnboundEd demonstrate that while achievement fell among third graders without ELSB support, the share of students who tested into each achievement level remained statistically consistent in ELSB schools within the same school district. In turn, pre-existing socioeconomic average achievement gaps did not widen during the grant’s first two years.

Differences by student racial and ethnic background reveal a more complex story. Schools that did not receive ELSB support sustained achievement among white students but saw achievement among Hispanic or Latino and Black or African American students as indicated by the growth in the percent of students who did not meet state standards and decline of students who met and exceeded state standards, widening average achievement gaps. Contrary to their peers in non-ELSB schools from the same school district, racial achievement gaps remain unchanged among schools that received ELSB support as cohorts of Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and White students fared about the same at every level in 2019, 2022, and 2023.

These analyses suggest that support provided through ELSB grants protected student achievement schoolwide against pandemic-related setbacks observed elsewhere at schools in their districts, across the state, and around the country. As more data becomes available, we encourage analysts to further center equity in their causal research by rigorously examining ELSB’s varied impacts between student groups. Until then, the descriptive findings highlight the potentially powerful role collaborative and evidence-based educator professional learning can play in supporting students from historically marginalized backgrounds.


  1. In September 2022, UnboundEd, Pivot Learning, and CORE Learning announced a merger to become the country’s largest equity-focused K–12 education development organization. CORE Learning is now a subsidiary of UnboundEd.
  2. The Online Elementary Reading Academy is now OL&LA, the Online Language and Literacy Academy.
  3. Researchers at Stanford University include “G” for “grant” when they acronymize the title. We follow the California Department of Education’s nomenclature which appends “grants” to the legislation. Both cases refer to the same program.


Learn more

Interested in improving early literacy outcomes district- or statewide? It starts with a plan. Learn more about CORE Learning’s Early Literacy Planning and Implementation Collaboration (ELPIC).

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