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Amid Pomp, Circumstance and Commencement Celebrations, Half the Class of '23 Can't Read


By Cheri Rae

Education Correspondent


“Subject: Failing Readers in our District. We are graduating kids who cannot read, or write a simple essay. They put kids in 11th grade AP Language classes who don’t know sentences start with a capital letter. It has been breaking my heart!” Email from local high school English teacher.


As high school seniors throughout Santa Barbara County celebrated graduation in recent days, every one of them deserved their moment of recognition.


From last in the class to the valedictorian, it was no small task for them to finish school in uncertain times with high expectations and exceptional stresses. The traditional ceremonies, set to the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” offered a rite of passage in the company of their loved ones and community members, a joyful accomplishment they will remember proudly the rest of their lives.


When the Class of 2023 entered kindergarten, thirteen years ago, they were small children who could hardly contain their excitement as they walked up the school steps and into the classroom. Surely, every single one believed they would learn to read, and just couldn’t wait.


By the time they were high school graduates, however, only half of them could.


A glimpse at Pomp: Before triumphantly transferring their tassels and tossing their mortarboards into the air, the graduates, more or less patiently, listened to speeches from fellow students and educational leaders that were resonant with inspirational thoughts and replete with assurances that each graduate now is well-prepared to follow their dreams.


For the graduates, whether headed for college, technical school, straight to a career, the military, or to a gap year to figure it out, the official line is that they’re ready to step into the adult world.


The implicit message: the education establishment did its job and now is released from responsibility for the Class of ‘23. Now it’s up to each graduate to make the most of their education.


Except.


A gander at Circumstance: Half the graduates could sit through their ceremony confident and secure in the knowledge they are equipped with the essential intellectual tools to reach their full potential. The other half – who struggle to read, and always have – knew they are not.


No educational leaders acknowledged this harsh reality on commencement day, but kids on the wrong side of the 50/50 reading divide may have had a hard-earned diploma in hand, but were never taught fundamental literacy skills. In an increasingly competitive world, where comprehension of the written word is essential, their ability to enter the workforce or tackle higher education is severely curtailed, their self-esteem perhaps damaged in the process.


No matter how motivated, these unskilled readers now have few options to correct the situation: community college remedial classes have been cut back drastically, the library lacks the capacity to teach hundreds of low literacy-proficient graduates each year, and private tutoring is both expensive and difficult to manage as an adult juggling multiple responsibilities while trying to learn to read.


As a longtime literacy advocate, I have borne witness to the psychological, social and economic distress of students who find themselves in this position. For the rest of their lives, they will shoulder the blame, but in most cases, it wasn’t their fault.


How we got here. For all the years the Class of 2023 was in school, our local school districts—as districts across the nation—warmly embraced the premise of the educational theory known as “balanced literacy.” They uncritically believed in the promise that children will discover the joy of reading naturally, simply by being exposed to good literature, and employing self-teaching strategies based on finding clues from pictures or guessing at words.


Administrators persuaded school board members to allocate vast sums of taxpayer dollars investing in curriculum, teacher training, and marketing to the community based on this theory. Along the way, they’ve explained the scandalous 50 percent reading proficiency by blaming the students for their lack of motivation, their economic status, even their ethnicity. These days, Covid-19 reliably gets the blame, even though test scores were abysmal even before the pandemic.


Somehow this community—as most across the country—was lulled into the belief that 50 percent proficiency must be all that’s possible these days.


But scientists and cognitive researchers said otherwise, based on years of evidence.


The system of ideas known as the “science of reading,” in contrast with “balanced literacy,” indicates that a direct, explicit, sequential, and structured approach to reading instruction works for virtually every budding reader.


It includes the five components of mastering literacy:


  • Phonemic awareness;

  • Phonics;

  • Fluency;

  • Vocabulary;

  • Comprehension.


For years, a handful of outspoken local advocates, including this one, pointed to the 90-to-95 percent reading proficiency associated with the instructional approach based on science—but were routinely ridiculed, dismissed, or simply ignored.


Until recently.


Change is in the air: Earlier this year, a couple of reading rockstars came to town, promoting reading as a civil right.


NAACP Literacy advocate Kareem Weaver and The Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton joined filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival premiere showing of her acclaimed film, “The Right to Read.”


Dozens of local educators, administrators and school board members attended the showing and the discussion afterward, which effectively indicted “balanced literacy” as the cause of so many reading woes. (You can register here for a special Juneteenth – June 19 - free streaming presentation of the film).


Not long after, Santa Barbara Unified School District officials, who in meetings of its Literacy Task Force for two years, had continued to promote, invest in, and steadfastly defend the “balanced literacy” approach, devised by the controversial Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins, unexpectedly announced a dramatic change.


SBUSD now it is switching from the discredited Calkins curriculum to the structured, science-based curriculum known as “Wit and Wisdom.” At least one other local district, Montecito Union, is studying the science of reading, and another, Goleta Union, is being heavily lobbied by a group of parents who have educated themselves on the subject.


It is no small task to make the paradigm shift from the failed, if popular, theory of “balanced literacy” to the highly researched, science-based approach, which is considerably more complex and more demanding of educators and students.


But it works for twice as many students, which makes the investment of time and money more than worthwhile.


It will take extraordinary leadership that is absolutely committed to this new approach, along with their generous support of educators to earn their buy-in, to make the significant turnaround in literacy levels that our students so desperately need.


And it will take time—an estimated three years—to get this science-based approach established in our K-6thgrade classrooms.


It’s a welcome shift, but sadly comes far too late for recent graduates and those who will follow in their footsteps over the next several years.


Some key questions – and a call to action.How does the school district navigate this interim period from one instructional approach to another?


What about remediation for current students from third grade through secondary school who haven’t learned foundational literacy skills? Will they be allowed to simply drift along, or will they receive meaningful intervention to become proficient readers before they graduate in 2024, 2025 and beyond?


And there is lingering concern about what to do for those new graduates now entering adulthood without the ability to decode or manipulate the written word.


They are curriculum casualties of an education establishment that failed them when they were young children, committed to a faulty, now-jettisoned instructional approach.


Surely, we owe them remedial services and an apology for their unnecessary struggles in school.


In the words of an exemplary administrator, now long-gone from SBUSD, “We have a moral imperative to make sure students can read before they graduate from this district.”


That’s the kind of commitment we need. It is up to us, members of the adult community responsible for their education, to determine how to right that wrong


Cheri Rae, author of DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia, has been a literacy advocate since 2010, the same year the Class of 2023 started school. She is the director of The Dyslexia Project and its Literacy Is For Everyone initiative. Contact her at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com


Image: “If you can’t read” graphic used by permission from expressreaders.org.






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