Candidates for state superintendent of public instruction diverge on how California should solve its early literacy crisis


Biography of the candidate: Joseph Campbell has worked in and around Montessori education all of his life. Currently, he publishes books on Montessori education. Visit

Are you satisfied with the results of the third grade reading tests in California? If not, what changes would you make to improve them?

I would introduce more Montessori strategies into public education and provide additional support for struggling students.

Montessori early childhood education includes a phonics-based literacy program that makes learning to read and write fun for most young children. In Montessori schools, written language learning begins at an early age, but there is no high-pressure academic instruction, and young children are never expected to sit still for long periods of time. Instead, young children “play” with multi-sensory materials like sandpaper letters to learn sounds and small cardboard cut-out alphabets to learn how to build words. Short individual and small group lessons, as well as independent follow-up work, are integrated into the children’s school day. The Montessori framework gives teachers the freedom to incorporate relevant local culture into the curriculum. Most Montessori children develop an enthusiasm for language learning and enter first grade with fluency at or above grade level. Montessori strategies have much to offer public education.

Dyslexia affects 15-20% of the population and children with dyslexia need more than phonetics. On average, children are diagnosed with dyslexia around age 9. At that time, they may be far behind their peers. This can put them on a disastrous educational and life path and can prevent them from succeeding in the future.

Early intervention and remediation are essential. In some highly inclusive, state-of-the-art Montessori schools, children are continually assessed from an early age and receive language instruction, therapy, and remediation at the level of intensity they need. All children receive appropriate care and attention so that they can learn to read and write to the best of their abilities. No one is “falling behind”. This could be a reality for all schools in California. No child should wait until the third year for a procedure. Montessori strategies, as well as individual instruction and therapy for children with dyslexia, can help strengthen the educational framework for early literacy.

Do you think the state should play a bigger role in setting policy and curriculum options to achieve universal reading proficiency by the end of third grade, or should that be left local control?

Yes. The National Board of Education, along with the state superintendent, should encourage local educational agencies to provide more dyslexia screenings, interventions, and language therapy to students.

I would like the state to advocate for proven phonics-based curricula integrated into play-based early childhood programs. In early childhood, language instruction should be holistic and excessive school instruction is inappropriate. Individual and small group lessons are ideal.

Education policy should establish a general framework for teachers to include culturally relevant material from their communities. Many educators tell me that they love Montessori because it provides them with a framework in which educational sovereignty and liberation is possible. While I believe the state should advocate for sound educational practices, I strongly believe that state policies should allow for local control of curriculum and content as much as possible.

How would you hold districts accountable for ensuring that all children can read at the grade level by the end of third grade?

I will personally review struggling districts and consider ways to support them. I would work to provide resources and funding to local agencies, including providing early childhood teachers with materials and basic Montessori training.

There are many reasons why literacy rates are relatively low in California. We are a sanctuary state and welcome immigrants, many of whom enter our public schools still learning English. We embrace our linguistic diversity and offer courses in many languages. We pride ourselves on teaching our children about social justice and fairness, not just academics. Our learners are more diverse and, unfortunately, the disparity between rich and poor is greater here. Over half a million students in California are currently homeless.

Despite comparing our scores to those of other states, California continues to lead the country. The best and brightest were born and raised here and attended California public schools. We are leaders in industry, art, music and science.

We can be literate well in this state and Montessori education has a huge opportunity to help. Certainly, the districts will face many challenges in the years to come, but the general trends are improving, so we must continue to collaborate, fund and pursue proven methods to promote literacy.

Should the state increase its funding of resources to improve early literacy, such as Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed $500 million in the 2022-23 state budget to fund literacy coaches and early literacy specialists? reading for elementary school teachers?

As a child, I struggled to learn to read and write. My mother was a Montessori teacher. In the second year, she intervened. For months she worked with me every morning before school, but I didn’t really “catch up” until I graduated from college. Today there is more awareness around dyslexia, but many children are still not getting the intervention and support they need.

Working individually or in small groups with reading specialists can make a huge difference. Without intervention, children may face an educational situation that may prevent them from succeeding later. I hope Governor Newsom’s proposal begins with strong support for first-graders. We should want every child to have literacy skills above and beyond all standards.


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