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  • By Cheri Rae

Op-Ed: Why SBUSD Falls Short on Reading

Recently published stories about the steep rate of poverty in Santa Barbara County were painful to read, but revealed a crucial fact:

“Poverty rates are closely correlated to education levels.”

A review of California education data shows that a more precise conclusion would be this:

“Poverty rates are closely correlated to reading levels.”

Reading is the key to unlocking the doors of educational success. Those doors remain shut for those who cannot read -- and too many children in our local schools are not taught to read, write and spell.

This includes not only a large number of English Language Learners, whose first language often is Spanish, but also the 20 percent of students who have dyslexia.

Because they’re still learning to read in third grade, when the other students are reading to learn, they are unlikely to catch up to their peers and more likely to drop out of high school, consigning them to lives that fall short of their potential in every way—including economically.

SBUSD’s failing strategy. The Santa Barbara Unified School District’s instructional vision, as stated in the Annual Academic Performance Report issued in August, is to teach students to “read, reason, and communicate in order to achieve college/career readiness.”

Much has been written about optimal approaches to teaching reading and methods and theories fall into two camps:

  • The structured, explicit, phonics-based way of teaching favored by neuroscientists and cognitive researchers who understand the way the brain functions.

  • The so-called “balanced literacy” approach, favored by the education community and publishers of the materials they purchase.

Unfortunately, SBUSD has invested heavily in this “balanced literacy” approach, with predictable low-level results.

Why? Because it ignores the science of reading.

A look at several years of reading scores measured by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), and distributed to the school board on August 28 gives a glimpse at how they have failed in their mission. The report to the board is appended below.

The report reveals that:

  • Only 55% of the students in SBUSD meet or exceed state standards in English Language Arts.

  • Some elementary schools score as low as 24%.

  • No school in the district exceeds 75%.

  • Just 11% in Special Education meet or exceed state standards.

  • Scores for our three high schools: Santa Barbara: 56%; San Marcos: 61%; Dos Pueblos: 67%.

In the face of these statistics, the narrative report uses words like “pockets of results,” “areas for celebration” and “laudable high achievement.”

Which brings new meaning to the phrase, “damning with faint praise.”

Reading is destiny. Astonishingly, the report to the school board indicates that these results have “No Fiscal Impact.”

Oh, yes, they do.

Certainly, it is true that administrators with six-figure salaries pay no price for these abysmal test results.

However, their decisions, particularly about the approaches to teaching reading in which they’ve so heavily invested, have a tragic fiscal impact on the future earning potential for the functionally illiterate individuals created by the district. They will be lucky if can manage to earn a living wage.

Just as certain is the fact that there is a considerable fiscal impact on the school district, because of the needs created as those would-be readers unnecessarily struggle: emotional disturbances from the shame and humiliation, even the self-harming behavior, resulting from repeated failure; credit recovery and extra instruction; truancy enforcement and alternative placements; payments for lawyers who handle the inevitable behind-closed-doors settlements and non-disclosure agreements with parents who demand the district provide private instruction at public expense.

Kindergartners become middle schoolers who fake their way through school as long as possible, then teens who stress about whether they can ever pass the driver’s license test or even fill out an employment application.

Far too many give up and drop out.

Bottom line. Their inability to read, write and spell due to their sub-par education puts them on a pathway to adult lives of frustration and lost potential, and most of all, poverty—for individuals and our community. Yet another generation of students denied the reading instructional approach that would actually prepare them for college and career.

The panacea of getting ahead via higher education is not as simple as it seems when would-be collegians are required to take multiple remedial classes before they can attempt even community college-level work.

Some of these former students might eventually learn to read in the adult literacy program at the library; others perhaps will finally learn to read in prison.

The lucky ones, those whose parents have the means, can hire one of the dozens of highly qualified educational therapists and very experienced reading specialists in this community, who work privately to build the reading, writing and spelling skills of many of these casualties of our education system.

The others will pay for it the rest of their lives.

In Santa Barbara, California. America’s Riviera. Home of the Rich and Famous. So close to Paradise, but so far away.

Cheri Rae, advocate and mother of a dyslexic son, formerly served as a dyslexia consultant with Santa Barbara Unified School District. She is the author of “DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia.” Contact her

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Annual Academic Performance Report Santa Barbara Unified School District Board Narrative | August 28, 2014 (sic)

Now that four years of student performance results on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) are available, California school districts are able to see trends over time in student performance in English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) and Mathematics. Students achieve at four performance levels: Standard Not Met, Standard Nearly Met, Standard Met, and Standard Exceeded.

This report highlights the following student performance results in ELA and Mathematics: 1) district-wide performance, 2) district-wide performance of racial/ethnic student subgroups, 3) district-wide performance of English language proficiency subgroups, 4) district-wide performance of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, 5) district-wide performance of students with disabilities, and 6) school performance. This report focuses on most of the student subgroups identified in the California Accountability Model and School Dashboard, and/or the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

As context, SBUnified has been engaged in the research-based “systems leadership” approach to improving instruction and student learning, which is producing pockets of results across the district. As SBUnified continues to learn to improve as a system of schools, student learning and achievement for all subgroups and at all schools is expected to rise.


In 2018, 55% of all students met or exceeded state standards in ELA, and 43% in math, which demonstrates incremental growth over the past four years. Progress has been more pronounced in elementary grades compared to secondary, with promising gains particularly in ELA. In both ELA and math, the percentage of SBUnified students meeting or exceeding state standards has consistently exceeded the statewide average, with statewide results for spring 2018 yet to be released.

Student performance across racial and ethnic subgroups district-wide shows areas for celebration, and simultaneously reveals inequities in the system that continue to produce substantial achievement gaps between some subgroups. Specifically, white and Asian students consistently achieve at similar levels to some of the highest performing districts in California, with nearly 80% of all students in each group having met or exceeded state standards in ELA, and about 70% in math; the achievement of these groups is commendable. Such laudable high achievement stands in contrast to that of our Hispanic/Latino and Black/African American students, of whom 40% and 57% met or exceeded state standards in ELA respectively, and 28% and 37% respectively in math. Academic gains are more noticeable for our Black/African American students, while achievement remains relatively flat for our Hispanic/Latino students who comprise approximately 60% of the total SBUnified student population.

Student performance for both our English learners (EL) and Reclassified Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) students has notably held steady over the past four years while over one thousand ELs have shifted from being identified as EL to RFEP. These results affirm the policy work SBUnified has engaged in around local reclassification criteria, and continue to call out the need for sustained improvements in instruction and supports for ELs. Although the gap in performance for ELs continues to be significant, both groups perform near their statewide average in ELA and math.

Student performance district-wide by socioeconomic status paints an encouraging picture when taken into context with the results by race/ethnicity and English language proficiency. Comparatively, a larger percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged (SED) students met or exceeded the state standards; many of these students are Hispanic/Latino students who have been reclassified, which demonstrates the relative progress our district is making for our bilingual Hispanic/Latino students, particularly in ELA where 40% of SED students met or exceeded the state standards in 2018.

Academic performance for students with disabilities (SWD) has remained essentially flat over four years in both ELA and math, with very small gains in 2017-18. In the Fall 2017 CA School Dashboard, SBUnified was identified for “Technical Assistance” to improve learning outcomes for SWD, and engaged in a collaborative process with the Santa Barbara County Office of Education (SBCEO) to identify root causes and begin to address them system-wide. It is possible that the necessary gains in achievement were made by spring 2018 to move out of this designation, which will be confirmed with CDE’s Fall 2018 Dashboard release, anticipated December 2018. Much work remains ahead to improve results for students with disabilities.

Finally, school performance and growth varies across schools and grade spans, with some schools showing strong upward trends over the last three to four years. The growth at several elementary schools has been substantial, particularly at schools that had less than 25% of students that met or exceeded state standards in 2015, and now have over 30% to 50% of all students achieving at high levels. Trends for most junior highs and high schools are mostly flat overall despite some swings, with one junior high showing a promising upward trend the last three years in both ELA and math. There is much to learn from the schools trending upward.

In sum, SBUnified has work to do to improve student learning for the majority of the students we serve, while maintaining high achievement for those who are excelling. The systems leadership approach to improving instruction and learning is producing the intended results at several schools and across some grade spans, and is taking root at all others. It is at the heart of our work to create conditions for success in diverse learning environments for all of our students, and most immediately for the subgroups of students who are not yet performing at high levels. Student’s readiness for the future is dependent upon our ability to simultaneously produce equity and excellence in learning and performance.

SBUnified Board of Education, August 28, 2014 Education Services | Research and Evaluation p. 2 of 2

Images: Success/Failure (pixabay); Santa Barbara Unified School District Administration Headquarters; Cheri Rae; Report delivered to school board 8-28-18 (dated 8-28-14)

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