Op-Ed: Pigs Fly -- SBUSD Leaders Finally Pivot from "Balanced Literacy" to "Science of Reading"
Updated: Mar 22
By Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit
On March 9, Santa Barbara Unified School District officials made a quiet, but extremely consequential announcement: the district's years-long commitment to the controversial English Language instruction theory of "balanced literacy" has come to an end.
The decision means that a new, district-wide, English Language teaching curriculum, yet to be adopted, will be established on one of two other programs; crucially, both are based on what is known as the "science of reading" approach -- rather than the system which SBUSD leaders steadfastly have promoted for years.
The determination, which emerged during the third meeting of SBUSD's “Literacy Task Force,” is terrific news, a long time coming, for a district that has been mired for many years in painfully low literacy rates for its students.
It’s not quite a done deal, as the process allows for a 30-day review period for teachers and the public, between March 15 and April 20. Curriculum materials are available at the district office at 720 Santa Barbara Street and may be found online here.
On May 9th, the curriculum adoption committee will make its recommendation to the school board; we hope and expect the trustees to make the wise choice at long last by adopting the science-based approach the children of our community deserve.
As a policy matter, the science of reading is rooted in the importance of directly and systematically building student competency in the fundamental skills that lead to reading proficiency: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
As a personal matter, the district’s pivot to us feels like a kind of redemption.
For more than a decade, the two of us have pleaded with educators, administrators, school board trustees and members of the community to address the alarming and lamentable issue of low literacy in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
We’ve written articles (our reporting, analysis and commentary published on Newsmakers alone may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), shared data, met with officials in private, and spoken out in public, pointing to the failings of balanced literacy and the overwhelming evidence that favors the science of reading.
Now we encourage community members to seize this moment to review the materials and express your thoughts.
How we got here. Despite our best efforts, the district for many years continued its embrace of "balanced literacy" and, more specifically, the curriculum known as "Lucy Calkins/Units of Study."
The approach was selected and promoted by an administrator who moved in and out of town some years ago, leaving behind a generation of struggling readers.
District officials heavily invested taxpayers' money in its materials and in professional development. Among other things, selected educators were sent to attend the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute at Columbia University, to become more deeply immersed in the Calkins method.
SBUSD public information and other officials meanwhile generated positive stories to sell the community on an instructional approach based on a flawed theory positing that, not only will children simply learn to read if they have access to good books but also that they will develop a love for literature in the process. (see the Renewed Reading Instruction section below).
Proponents of balanced literacy stubbornly ignored the findings of the National Reading Panel in 2000, and countless studies since, about how the brain learns to read. Locally, they forged ahead, insisting that the abysmal test scores resulting from this instructional approach contained “pockets of hope,” a popular, if fatuous, phrase among education administrators.
Beyond public funding, district officials also regularly tapped the public for additional donations for their “Love of Literacy” program -- spending even more resources on this failed approach.
Last school year, the district's “Early Literacy Task Force” held several Zoom meetings, during which multiple administrators and consultants extolled the virtues of balanced literacy, the Calkins curriculum and their commitment to it.
All those hours produced virtually nothing, however, and the last scheduled meeting of the "Early Literacy Task Force" was abruptly cancelled -- amid a mass exodus of top district administrators that followed the hiring of Superintendent Hilda Maldonado.
A new start. We started all over during the current school year, with a new task force overseen by a new administration.
The first two meetings of the newly-constituted "Literacy Task Force" seemed to offer no more promise than those from last year, with a highly scripted, top-down approach run by district officials, to the great frustration of these citizen members.
Then a switch was flipped.
By the third and final meeting of the task force (whose members, in fact, had no actual assigned tasks, other than to attend meetings) district officials suddenly changed direction.
We’re left to wonder what, exactly, put them, finally, on the right path.
After long ignoring pesky local advocates, perhaps they could no longer ignore the cumulative effect of ongoing national reporting on the subject, such as:
Investigative reporting on how students’ reading struggles are inextricably linked to the failure of “balanced literacy";
Reports of Mississippi outscoring every other state since it focused quality reading instruction;
The spectacle of Lucy Calkins herself admitting her approach needs improvement — on the front page of the New York Times.
Denise Alvarado, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction and the leader of the meeting, is new to the district this year.
She declined to characterize Santa Barbara Unified categorically as a Lucy Calkins district: “There is a lot of inconsistency in this district, not everyone is using it,” she said. “There are pockets here and there. Some schools are using it more than others.”
However, she flatly (and happily) also stated: “We are not moving forward using that curriculum.”
Trapped in alternative timeline? It was as if the past decade never happened, with no mention of the massive investment in balanced literacy the district made in training and materials.
Instead, it appears, the district now is now 100 percent on-board with the science of reading, and there’s a “that never happened” perspective regarding their former love of Lucy.
Replacing former skepticism about — if not hostility toward — the science of reading and its proponents, officials now embrace it, albeit couched in the phrase, “systematic, explicit foundational skills.”
They also now exude confidence about transforming the entire educational establishment from way of thinking—and teaching reading—to another. They are prepared to jettison their previous training, commitment to, and belief in one methodology to embrace a totally different one.
Exactly how, and how well, this re-education process of teachers, principals, and administrators will take place, and who will provide the extensive training and support needed, remains to be seen.
“We don’t have anything specific yet,” Alvarado said, when asked about what goals the district has set, a timeline for their implementation and their measure of success. “Our expectation is to utilize the curriculum we adopt with all leaders.”
Offering additional hope for the future, literacy coach Mallory Price pointed to the enrollment of approximately three dozen district educators and administrators in LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), the highly regarded two-year professional course.
Data points are people. The district finally is headed in the right direction when it comes to literacy.
It will take a lot more than the adoption of a new curriculum beginning in the next school year to make significant progress, however.
More than fifty percent of SBUSD students are not proficient readers. It can be easy to forget that every “data point” about this systemic educational failure tells a sad tale about an individual; in real numbers, this means upwards of 6,000 struggling students who are currently enrolled in the district’s elementary, junior high and high schools.
Notably, that number does not represent those who are now adults — who have never been taught essential literacy skills. Don’t they still have a right to read? What will be done for them?
Those who have struggled with balanced literacy remain at risk of never meeting their potential, as they bear the lifelong burden of bad decisions by administrators they never even met.
In a district that proclaims, “Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day,” they missed out.
Now that district officials at long last are poised to eliminate SBUSD’s long-held theoretical instructional approach, surely, those individuals who were subjected to it deserve compensatory, effective reading instruction.
Bottom line. The long-term effects of balanced literacy in our schools negatively affects the lives of individuals and families as well as the preparedness of our workforce and the overall health of our community. When no one is accountable, we are all responsible.
We need informed, committed, and lasting leadership from every sector in the community to step in and help out to ensure that in Santa Barbara, Literacy Is For Everyone.
Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit offer literacy support, resources and advocacy for the Santa Barbara community through The Dyslexia Project. Contact them at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com
A report on effective literacy instruction in California, issued on March 9 by Pivot Learning, offers high-level thinking on the subject about what is needed. And Gov. Newsom has offered his suggested Literacy Road Map.
Images: Photo illustrations courtesy of The Dyslexia Project; Cheri Rae (l) and Monie de Wit (Juan Crisantos photo).