Rethinking Reading: Look to Science to Solve the Literacy Crisis

By Ruth Green   |   June 14, 2022

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

The Santa Barbara Unified School District is failing in its most fundamental responsibility – teaching all of its students to read. Currently (and pre-pandemic as well), barely half of the students in SBUSD read proficiently meeting the district’s standard. The percentage is in the 30s for minority students. The district’s redesignation rate, whereby English Language Learners transition to a regular classroom, is an abysmal 13%.

Having served as a SBUSD board member, the President of the California State School Board of Education, and more recently on the Superintendent’s “Early Literacy Task Force,” I have serious concerns about the low literacy rates and their causes.

The Problems

The problems are twofold: the district’s use of what is called a balanced literacy reading program authored by Lucy Calkins and the accompanying balanced literacy teacher training. “Lucy Calkins Units of Study” only sporadically teaches phoneme awareness (the ability to parse out oral speech sounds) and phonics (the ability to map sounds onto letters). Instead, it relies on a linguistic guessing game called the three cueing system which urges students to look at pictures and context to guess the word instead of using the actual science-based decoding of words. These same problems, with their attendant low literacy levels, exist in many districts throughout the state.

A few years ago, in response to critical reviews, a token phonics component was added to Calkins’ program, but it is too little and too late. Recognizing the problem, New York City schools recently discontinued the Calkins program, as featured on the front page of The New York Times

Unfortunately, SBUSD plans to use the Calkins program until 2029.

Teacher training is also an important piece of the puzzle. Inexplicably, most schools of education continue to teach prospective teachers balanced literacy contrary to all the scientific evidence. Even if phoneme awareness, phonics, and decodable texts are introduced, a balanced literacy instruction is not explicit and systematic enough to prepare teachers for the very difficult job of teaching children to read when they enter their classrooms. 

SBUSD has already made the decision to continue this balanced literacy teacher training for the next three years.

Teachers cannot teach what they do not know and have never been taught. It is an extraordinarily unfair situation for them to encounter classroom challenges for which they are totally unprepared. Teaching reading is hard work. Dr. Louisa Moats, a national reading expert, discusses this need for change in the preparation and education of prospective teachers in the American Federation of Teachers publication.

The Answer

Fortunately, science provides the answer with a consensus among cognitive and neuroscientists and other specialists called the Science of Reading. Dr. Moats explains, “The body of work referred to as “the science of reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don’t learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students.”

That kind of instruction, according to the National Institutes of Health, National Reading Panel, is explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and systematic instruction in phonics and methods to improve fluency and comprehension.

Science has also shown that approximately 40-50% of students will read under any system of instruction. Good readers decode easily and fluently as they build their vocabulary and comprehension. It is the other half that are at risk for reading failure which can have severe social consequences. And this is the very situation we have in Santa Barbara. The other 50% including, but not limited to, English learners and socially and economically challenged children, who need real, science-based instruction that’s not being provided. The test scores and data released by the district confirm this exact point. 

Science informs us that reading failure persists throughout a student’s life. According to American Public Media’s Emily Hanford’s excellent, groundbreaking reporting, “Research shows that children who don’t learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they’re likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too.”

Based on settled science, the educational climate is changing with approximately 20 states that have dropped Lucy Calkins and other balanced literacy programs like it. In addition to New York City, districts in Seattle, Oakland, Denver, and Palo Alto, among others, have done the same. States and districts that have implemented the science of reading, faithfully, now have the data to demonstrate the wisdom of their policy decisions. 

One such example is the state of Mississippi, rarely thought of as an educational leader, where policy makers and educators determined to raise literacy levels, fully embraced the science of reading eight years ago. It was the only state on the 2019 NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, to improve their reading scores.

So will the SBUSD leadership, the Superintendent, and Board of Education members be influenced by a validated, peer-reviewed approach to literacy and change course? And if not, what evidence and data do they have to defend business as usual? The district’s programs and the test data have demonstrated failure for half of their students for far too long.

Their policy decisions have real world consequences. For example, one metric to determine future prison populations in California is 3rd grade reading scores. If the board wants to tackle income inequality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and lack of social mobility, their students need to be free from illiteracy just as Frederick Douglass said.

It starts with their becoming informed about the true cost of instructional practices they invest in, and what they vote to approve, since their policies affect Santa Barbara’s children as soon as they enter their kindergarten classrooms. 

By withholding a true evidence-based approach in favor of failed balanced literacy, they are limiting opportunities and condemning many children, particularly minority children, in this district to a life far more difficult than it needs to be. 

And where is the social justice in that?   

Ruth Green served on the Board of Education for Santa Barbara Unified School District 2000-2003, as President/member of the California State Board of Education 2004-2008, and member of SBUSD Early Literacy Task Force 2021-2022


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