There is no more potent, relevant, necessary skill for a child than learning to read. If you agree, you should know that we are in the process of failing a generation of Californians.

Last year, state testing suggested half of all students — and 65 percent of low-income students of color — were reading below grade level. Locally, our numbers sadly mirrored the statewide totals: 56 percent of Cabrillo Unified students failed to meet English-language standards; 47 percent of Pacifica School District students failed to meet the standard. Both local school districts saw a drop after the pandemic disruption of in-school education.

As if that isn’t dire enough, recent reporting suggests California — not Mississippi, Alabama or some other state that West Coast residents routinely mock — has the lowest literacy rate of any state in the country. Last year, Capitol Weekly reported that 23 percent of California adults are effectively illiterate.

A yearslong decline in reading levels of young children will translate into less literate adults and that has incalculable ramifications for the electorate, for employers, for us all.

There are things about California that make it, if not unique, a particularly challenging place to teach English literacy. For starters, dozens of languages are spoken across the state. It also spends less per capita on a child’s education — about 13 percent less than average.

Not depressed yet? A group called the California Reading Coalition has put together an interesting ranking of the state’s larger school districts. It focuses on the performance of Latino third-graders, accurately deducing that if the district is successfully engaging these students as readers then it is likely getting through to other, often less challenging, populations.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the 30 top-performing districts in the coalition rankings are in the Bay Area — not even heralded (and rich) districts in Silicon Valley. Coastside school districts were not included in the survey, presumably because they didn’t have enough Latino third-graders to make the results meaningful.

A nation that cannot read will not succeed. It’s as simple as that.

The Center for American Progress notes that America’s literacy slide has actually been decades in the making and was only made worse by school closures during the pandemic. It suggests large public and private investments in readership initiatives and teachers trained in the science of reading in every classroom. If that sounds expensive, consider not doing so. The center listed the wide-ranging consequences of an illiterate nation: more political disinformation, suppressed gross national product, greater dependency on welfare and even more incarceration.

There is another byproduct of reading worth mentioning: empathy. Curious readers are bound to find common cause with other people, whether they are reading a news story about a fallen tree in La Honda or a novel set in some foreign land. Literacy connects us in that way. And that is priceless.

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

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(10) comments

Zack B

The anti-intellectual movement in this country has never been more active than it is today. Isaac Asimov commented on this many years ago and it is even more relevant today.

"There is a cult of ignorance winding its way

through our political and cultural life, nurtured by

the false notion that democracy means

that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

John Charles Ullom

“Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”

― Isaac Asimov


The epicenter of ignorance? You guessed it Hollywood!

John Charles Ullom

That is an ignorant cliche usually uttered by talking heads and almost always prefaced with a shout out to Soros.

Like, who looks to Hollywood for wisdom in the first place? Like who cares what Alysa Milano or James Woods are spewing about? Nothing they say matters.

Local Yokel

As Clay mentioned, California is home to may different cultures that speak many different languages, and Half Moon Bay is no exception. There are many factors in play. First, I can safely say that, as a Mexican myself, many immigrant families (not all) don't prioritize reading and education. They focus on work. That's not a bad thing, they have a good work ethic, but they don't necessarily associate reading and education with making money. With that said, some immigrant families don't focus on learning English either, and this isn't me passing judgement on them, like I said, I am Mexican myself. Reading scores will continue to slide when you have people who don't have a strong command of the English language taking English reading tests.

Clay also mentioned per pupil spending. It is my understanding that it's not that CA is short on money for education, it's how the money is spent. When you have district employees making well over six-figure salaries, there's not as much meat left on the bone for student spending. To be clear, I am not fully informed on the logistics of CUSD, but this problem wouldn't be unique to CUSD.

Unfortunately we have too many people in charge who are unwilling to call out the problems for fear of being labeled something undesirable and think the solution is to throw more money at the problem. Money won't change the mindset of people.


Thank you so much for taking time and expressing such a well considered opinion!

I just wanted to point out that school spending in California is exceptionally complex and inherently broken. As I recall the current system is called Local Control Funding, and while the intentions of this approach were admirable, results have not matched intentions. In typical government fashion, it's very difficult for those making the choices to admit that the choice they made was a mistake.

I also want to point out that CUSD teachers are paid below average for our county. This is an inequity that desperately needs addressed. CUSD is functioning because of the many veteran teachers who began teaching at CUSD when this was an affordable place to live. It is no longer. Hatch parents, for example, received an email only hours ago that the very well liked and appreciated principal is leaving... for a school in Burlingame. Shorter commute. Better compensation. I'm thankful she lasted with us for as long as she did. CUSD will continue to struggle to fill vacancies at its current pay rates.

John Charles Ullom

The parents, not society, the parents are to blame. If your kid can’t read, you need to rethink your priorities.


I agree. With four young kids at home, reading and literacy are a commitment. Life can be “too busy” if we let it, but outside of a few specific scenarios, there are not many things more important than sitting down with your children and reading.

I will say that as much as my wife and I (and our parents, saints each of them) work with our kids, Cabrillo Unified staff have been exceptional in helping our kids learn and grow. Each educator and staff member has been almost startling in how much they care, how hard they work, and how skilled they are. I want to take 100% credit for my kids reading skills, but I simply cannot. CUSD has so substantially and consistently exceeded my expectations that my kids would not be who they are without their teachers, aides, librarians, speech specialists, administrators, and those dozens of others that support every wonderful day at their school.


Bravo, Clay, for highlighting a significant challenge for all of us and our society. In this day of rampant dis- and misinformation, good reading skills—coupled with strong media literacy skills, to separate the truth from the lies—are indispensable for effective participation in society...particularly for citizenship. Someone who cannot understand and critically evaluate the written word is someone who can trivially be manipulated by charlatans, or worse. Well-said!

John Charles Ullom

A lot of well read people are trivially manipulated.

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