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Op-Ed: Amid Poor Test Scores and Foot-Dragging, New Standards to Teach Reading Spur Literacy Hopes

By Cheri Rae and Monie DeWit

The property tax bills arrived last week, listing no fewer than eight school bonds we are helping to pay off dating back to 1995 — years before our college-age sons were born.

As responsible members of the community, we pay our fair share year after year, believing in a decent return on our investment for supporting our public schools. One of the basic expectations is that, in exchange for our tax dollars, students will learn to read when they enter the classroom -- certainly, well before they graduate. Instead, we had to dig deep to pay for remedial reading services when the kids struggled to read.

Similarly, when prospective teachers enroll in college and pay tuition, there is an

unspoken agreement that they can trust the institution to prepare them well. They want to be well-prepared when they step into their classrooms and begin teaching students what they have learned in college, and what they have proven in their credentialing programs. They assume that their colleges and universities set high standards reflecting the most complete and reliable research.

Fortunately, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, in an unanimous decision, recently set higher expectations for the instruction and preparation of prospective teachers in California in the critical area of literacy. Teacher training programs now will be required to provide instruction in evidence-based approaches to teaching foundational literacy skills, and teacher candidates will be required to prove mastery of them.

This announcement is a major step forward for teacher candidates, the districts that will employ them and their eventual students in the classroom.

With that deeper knowledge, prospective teachers now will become familiar with the “Science of Reading,” and understand the importance of mastery of the five essential components of reading including fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, phonics, and phonemic awareness.

In this more comprehensive study, future teachers will understand how the currently popular theory of “balanced literacy” falls short, and why it consistently fails half the student population. It also will require teacher candidates become well-versed in the California Dyslexia Guidelines.

This move puts the responsibility of effectively teaching literacy to teachers back on the colleges and universities where they receive their initial instruction. That’s where it belongs, rather than on the school districts that for too long have had to backfill what their teachers — through no fault of their own — weren’t taught in the first place.

No longer will they have to study the science of reading at their own initiative, or during on-the-job training or professional development, as is now too-often the case.

Making the grade. This critical change has been a long time coming.

Since 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality has tracked the Teacher Prep Review. In that year, just 35 percent of teacher training programs in the U.S. received an A or B grade for preparing teachers with knowledge about the science of reading. In 2020, that number had grown to 51 percent.

According to these rankings, none of California’s educational programs in 2020 rated an A+, although several of the state’s private institutions, state colleges and university campuses rated an A. In this evaluation, due to its failure to teach phonics, phonemic awareness or fluency, UCSB scored a D.

As committed literacy advocates, we welcome this shift to science and hope that it soon will have a ripple effect through our school districts, which have long resisted it. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the failure of the balanced literacy “three-cueing” instruction approach, many educational leaders have shied away from acknowledging and confronting the enormity of the persistent literacy crisis.

Yet year after year of test results and widespread anecdotal evidence proves their chosen approach is ineffective for more than half of students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, according to information presented at the recent meeting of the district’s Literacy Task Force.

The education establishment has been able to shrug off concerns with vague and ill-considered comments and excuses about slow learners, unmotivated students or parents who are not engaged in their children’s education. They have by and large, refused to be accountable for their embrace of balanced literacy, an instructional practice that does not work for more than half the children entrusted to them.

Now, the tipping point may have been reached, with the confluence of several recent developments that have forced a thoughtful reevaluation of the superiority of teaching reading based on settled scientific research rather than a flawed theory. The educational establishment no longer controls the narrative about literacy, due to several key factors:

  • Science. The groundbreaking scientific advancements possible with the functional MRI (fMRI) that literally shows how the brain works while reading has forced reevaluation of teaching approaches because researchers can watch in real time.

  • Calkins, debunked. Lucy Calkins, whose name is virtually synonymous with balanced literacy, recently grudgingly admitted that science had forced her to re-evaluate her theoretical approach. Stories like this have been circulating for year, but none had the impact of the New York Times front page piece on the matter. Still, as the Times reported in July, promised phonics-based upgrades have been slow in coming and remain “mired in the debate over state laws that restrict how race, gender and other identities are taught.”

  • Journalism. The world has learned, thanks to the investigative reporting of American Public Media’s Emily Hanford, the flaws of the way reading is widely taught in the U.S. She has complied a comprehensive list of reference materials about the Science of Reading.. Her new podcast, “Sold a Story,” explores reading fallacies and the political and economic underpinnings of national literacy failures.

  • Increased community connection. Parents, advocates, and enlightened educators have joined forces to share resources, experiences, and insights. Social media has helped spread information, awareness, and support for reading instruction based on solid research like never before, unfiltered by the claims of administrators. Rapidly growing groups on Facebook address the “Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College.” Many have shared the free online resources of the University of Florida Literacy Institute.

  • Political advocacy. Legislative changes initiated by the grassroots "Decoding Dyslexia" movement, benefitting literacy instruction for all students, spread swiftly across the nation, The California chapter first worked to pass AB 1369, co-sponsored by then Assembly member Das Williams, that led to the creation of the California Dyslexia Guidelines in 2015; more recently the coalition pushed the legislation to strengthen teaching standards that was recently adopted by the credentialing commission.

  • Heroes. Two individuals within the movement stand out, representing the why and the how of the literacy issue: Kareem Weaver of Oakland has tirelessly advocated for literacy as a fundamental right, and Dr. Louisa Moats, developer of the popular LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) approach to teaching teachers what they need to know to provide effective literacy instruction for their students. This expensive, intensive after-the-fact professional development is a demanding program for teachers already in the classroom, but it’s becoming more popular all the time.

What next? A glimpse of SBUSD's latest achievement test scores leaves little doubt that the current system is failing (A school-by-school breakdown may be found here).

Ideally, the new teacher credentialing requirements will provide prospective teachers with the knowledge base they need to teach reading effectively from Day One.

But what should be done in the meantime, before all the teachers are properly trained? With current practices, a child’s chances of learning to read proficiently are no better than a coin toss. It’s going to take a paradigm shift, innovative approaches, and creative thinking to change those odds that no longer can be denied.

It will be intriguing to see how local districts in our county explain the truth of reading gone wrong -- and propose how to make it right.

Eventually, administrators and officials who have been insistent in their commitment to “balanced literacy” must adjust their thinking to align with the statewide experts who issue teaching credentials, and who have stated clearly what our students need. Continuing to tinker around the edges, trying to mesh a failed theory with solid science, is a losing proposition.

Here is one suggestion of what to do while awaiting all our teachers getting up to speed:

There are dozens of highly trained professionals in our community, many of whom are credentialed teachers, who left the public schools to pursue structured literacy instruction based on the science of reading. They quietly tutor students whose parents can afford the high cost of private instruction.

Sadly, most cannot. And they shouldn’t have to, in order to supplement the failed balanced literacy approach in our public schools.

Let’s address the issue of literacy by tapping in our creative community. Working together to harness local talent, expertise and considerable experience back into our schools, we can form collaborative partnerships and opportunity for our students, our teachers and our administrators.

Let us act on the near universal belief that every child has the right to read. And that Literacy Is For Everyone.

P.S. While attending SBUSD's second “Literacy Task Force” of the school year, we were disappointed to see a gross misspelling on the first slide of the presentation prepared by school district officials. The familiar quote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” should be attributed to Frederick Douglass, not Douglas.

And we were disheartened that none of the current information we have presented above was addressed, except for number of teachers and administrators who will receive “professional development” in LETRS.

Those with institutional memory may fear this sounds like a repeat of a similar proposal to provide “professional development” in Lindamood-Bell reading instruction, back in 2011.

Sadly, despite good intentions and high hopes for literacy improvements and promises of “fidelity,” it was a patchwork approach that had no lasting effect and dissipated, after great investment of time and effort. See: Again, here we go.

The district appears to want to maintain strict control and prevent the exchange of information about the latest advancements in reading instruction; we believe it is incumbent upon members of the community to step up and demand better. For our children—who deserve to grow up mastering the most basic skills of reading, writing and spelling.

We know far too well what happens when they don’t.

Cheri Rae and Monie deWit are longtime literacy advocates, currently with their Literacy Is For Everyone program of distributing Little Free Libraries in the community. They believe in supporting strengths and promote creative approaches to literacy. They are members of the SBUSD Literacy Task Force where they consistently advocate for the science of reading. Contact them at The Dyslexia Project.

(To learn more from statewide innovators in literacy instruction, register for the upcoming California Reading Summit, sponsored by the California Reading Coalition, working to improve literacy in the Golden State).

Images: Literacy for Everyone.

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