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Op-Ed: SB County's 50% Student Proficiency in Reading is a Scandal - and What We Can Do About It

By Cheri Rae and Monie deWit

Children with crooked teeth have nothing to smile about. Neither do children who can’t read.

Both conditions arise through no fault of their own, and there’s plenty that can be done about it, if addressed in time, using best scientific practices.

Parents would be outraged if they sent their kids to a large orthodontic establishment in town with a 50 percent success rate in straightening teeth; the indignant chorus would be: “We trusted you and you failed us and hurt our children. What a waste of time and money!”

Luckily, that’s not the case, and Santa Barbara is well-stocked with orthodontists skilled and successful in transforming snaggle-toothed kids into young adults with beautiful smiles.

When it comes to literacy, however, the educational establishment gets away with its failure to teach just half the students to read proficiently. -- year after year after year.

The literacy rate among students in Santa Barbara and throughout the County, barely reaches 50 percent overall, and in some subgroups it’s far below that. Yet there is no widespread public outcry, little questioning and zero consequences for those in school district leadership positions,, whose decisions about reading instruction fail half the children entrusted to them.

Low literacy in childhood and adulthood is far more impactful than going through life with crooked teeth.

When we advocates speak of Literacy as a Human Right, we are serious. Literacy transcends politics: “Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom," Carl Sagan observed, "There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom, but reading is still the path.”

The burden of failure. We hear a lot about "equity" and "social justice" from the public school establishment, but they never, ever link it to literacy, or 'fess up to their absolute responsibility to ensure it for every student.

The child who is not taught to read, however, never has an equal shot at living the life they might have imagined when they become adults. Students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are much more likely to drop out of school, and far too many go from the education system to the criminal justice system.

These people — through no fault of their own— bear the burden of failure by the public institution.

Their opportunities and possibilities are snatched away, often and in large part, by the flawed instructional approach known as “Balanced Literacy.”

In this method, children are taught to guess, look at pictures, or just skip what they don’t know as they try to learn to read. Educrats foist this off on our students and their families. They steadfastly support it, invest our tax dollars in it, and even solicit donations from the community.

In doing so, they deny settled science, research, and common sense, by foregoing the approach known as the "Science of Reading," which is based on how the brain learns.

Learning how written symbols, patterns and blends— with all their rules and exceptions— work together to represent the spoken word is difficult, complicated work that does not come naturally.

When students are taught to read in this direct, explicit, systematic way, in accordance with how the brain processes language, however, it’s an effective process for nearly everyone in learning to read, write and spell; by contrast, the “Balanced Literacy” approach favored by the educational establishment is hit-or-miss for half of students, as our appallingly low literacy rates sadly show.

"A major retreat." Even the most prominent proponent of balanced literacy now acknowledges that the approach is flawed, and is changing her curriculum in the wake of neuroscience research.

Lucy Calkins, professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and Balanced Literacy guru, "has made a major retreat" in the method, the New York Times reported in a front page story last Sunday.

Calkins first made a critical change in her "Units or Study" curriculum in 2020, adding a so-called "phonics patch" in the wake of reporting about the ineffectiveness of balanced literacy by the journalist Emily Hanford.

Now, the Times reported, Calkins has gone much further.

"The last two or three years, what I've learned from the science of reading work has been transformational," she told education reporter Dana Goldstein, who detailed how Calkins has rewritten her entire curriculum for K-2 reading instruction, adding much more emphasis on phonics and decoding.

"All of us are imperfect," Calkins added.

The stubbornness of educrats. Yet no amount of data, articles, speeches, research studies, personal testimonies or professional expertise has had any effect on the educational decision makers who cling to the ineffective “Balanced Literacy” approach, now outlawed by more than 20 states and counting, which have implemented the "Science of Reading" method instead.

Which is what we should do locally and throughout California.

Sadly, the education establishments know better, they just don’t do better. Those entrusted with making decisions about how our children are taught to read try to mollify critics by pointing out subgroups of student that are doing well -- and shrugging off those who are not.

Despite their failure to provide this most basic building block of a decent education, they have the audacity to expect, variously, contract extensions, re-election and promotion to higher office.

They hear regularly from frustrated parents seeking help for their children, but seem unmoved to address these struggles.

Perhaps they need to hear, as we do, from adults suffering the results of low literacy; those who tearfully explain their difficulties and overriding sense of shame left over from painful classroom experiences: Frustration that they cannot pursue higher education without better reading skills; the unending stress of getting and keeping a job in the information age, when reading truly is fundamental.

Worst of all, the inability to read to their own children; one of our clients recently explained they were unable to fill out an online employment application because it always times out before they can complete it.

Success stories. A recent story in The Seattle Times about a district fed up with low literacy levels reported on what happened when they decided to do something about it. They’ve jettisoned the Balanced Literacy method that doesn’t work and embraced science instead. A second installment focused on retraining teachers, who were never taught how the brain learns to read

This report by "The 74," a non-profit, non-partisan online news site covering education in America, chronicles how a school district in rural Tennessee which abandoned Balanced Literacy in favor of the Science of Reading demonstrated positive results in a few months.

In California, a group of enlightened educators have come together as the California Reading Coalition, providing leadership in examining flawed reading instructional approaches, and studying what works.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education also has embraced science with their "Getting Reading Right" approach, including an informative website packed with resources; A roundtable of educators, brought together by the prominent education website "EdSource," also provides a substantive perspective on early literacy.

A call to action. This kind of change could/would/should happen here -- when the educational establishment embraces settled science.

Local public school leaders need to step up and address -- seriously, honestly and humbly -- the collective failure to instill literacy in all our children, and cast off the complacency that accepts fifty percent proficiency as just, reasonable, and right.

By any measure, it is not.

We propose creating an ongoing local literacy roundtable for important discussions to take place among community leaders, to realign thinking and deepen understanding about the importance of proper reading instruction and the need to change direction.

Without literacy leadership, the community can only expect even more unnecessary and unwanted poor life outcomes for half our children.

We believe Literacy Is For Everyone, our innovative initiative to inform, inspire and provide resources and support to enhance literacy in the community, is an important start..

Cheri Rae, author of "DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia," is a former consultant to the Santa Barbara Unified School District, and this year served on its "Early Literacy Task Force." Monie deWit is a professional photographer and former candidate for school board, who ran on a platform that Literacy is a Human Right.

Longtime literacy and dyslexia advocates, they offer innovative, creative artistic and photographic approaches to address literacy issues, and provide information, expertise and insight through The Dyslexia Project’s Community Resource Center. Contact them at

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