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Op-Ed: SB School Board Race Sheds More Heat than Light about Creating a Culture of Literacy

(Editor's note: The word "literacy" has been recited like an incantation in the campaign for the Santa Barbara Unified School District's board of education, by candidates on all sides of the political spectrum, with little substantive discussion of what it actually means. We asked education advocate Cheri Rae, who has written extensively on the subject, to provide some background and context, along with her personal perspective).

By Cheri Rae

So much talk about literacy in the current political campaign for seats on the school board.

But so little meaningful dialogue that will actually make a difference in the lives of struggling readers.

According to the latest standardized testing, barely more than half the students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are proficient readers, while some elementary schools report less than 30 percent proficiency. Whatever your political persuasion, that’s unacceptable in this—or any community.

In the Santa Barbara school board race, low literacy has become a hot topic with challengers attacking the district’s failures and incumbents defending the indefensible. When challengers speak of the tragedy of students who can’t read a menu or sign their names, they are right. When incumbents speak of the need to close the achievement gap, they are right.

But invoking literacy as a talking point does nothing to shed light on how we got here, or where we should be going.

Literacy and equity. Literacy is not a political issue. It shouldn’t be bandied about on one side to score points. Nor should it be skipped over by the other in favor of so-called equity issues.

Literacy is the ultimate equity issue.

Reading proficiently is the key to success in a society that depends so heavily on the written word. Those who read poorly are shut out, shut down, and locked out of opportunities guaranteed by a public education, but too often not delivered.

Literacy is a fundamental aspect of a decent education, and yes, a basic civil right for every student enrolled in school, public or private, progressive or traditional.

In a community that seems so woke about social issues, it’s appalling that Santa Barbara educators preside over and defend an educational establishment that continually fails its students in teaching them the basic, essential skills of reading, writing and spelling.

Even more appalling is that local educators, administrators and school board members know why we have such a significant literacy problem in this district.

The approach to reading instruction that they support is unscientific, outmoded, discredited and even outlawed in some states. But still they fund it, cling to it, and refuse to take a leadership position in replacing it.

A clash of theories.The way students are taught matters greatly.

Reading instruction falls into two rival camps: The Science of Reading, based on evidence, research and how the brain works; it is direct, explicit, highly structured and based on the correlation of the sounds of language and the symbols that represent them. It is highly effective for virtually all students, including those who are dyslexic.

In the other camp is the so-called Balanced Literacy approach, used in our local schools.

The district has invested heavily in Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. It relies on contextual clues, a system of guesswork, and the belief that exposure to literature will create great readers. It doesn’t.

As our abysmal statistics in reading proficiency indicate, it works for only half our kids. Though you won’t hear any incumbent or educator speak about it, even Lucy Calkins has begun to realize her instructional approach is flawed and needs to be “re-balanced” based on current scientific research.

Real-life struggles. Behind every statistic is a real-life story.

I recently ran into a bright young man for whom I advocated years ago. He struggled all through school because the Balanced Literacy approach failed to teach him to read. When I met him, he was a senior in high school reading at a first-grade level. He floundered educationally and emotionally and got into predictable trouble with low grades and truancy.

Through determined advocacy that resulted in an expensive settlement with the district, he finally received intensive remediation based on science-based, intensive, structured reading instruction he should have received when he was a child.

By the time he was 18, he had far too many years to make up for in too little time. He struggled mightily and barely managed to graduate from Santa Barbara High School in 2016, the happiest day of his life. But the intervention only raised him to a fifth-grade reading level, which is too low for most jobs or to enroll in City College.

Still, he holds on to big dreams that would take him beyond his current work delivering restaurant meals. “I still want to learn to read better,” he said to me. “Can you help me again?”

A call to action. After-the-fact remediation is no substitute for quality, timely initial instruction.

The young man’s window of opportunity, like that of so many others, closed in third grade.

When the Balanced Literacy instructional approach fails, students are still learning to read when they need to be reading to learn. Through no fault of their own, they’ll be playing catch up, unable to reach their full potential, for the rest of their lives.

Without literacy, there is no equity for them.

Literacy is neither a conservative cause nor a progressive one. It’s a moral imperative.

Progress will occur only when the educational establishment commits to admitting its failures and addressing the complexity of reading instruction. Educators and school districts across the country have jettisoned the Balanced Literacy approach and embraced the Science of Reading to great success.

We can do the same in Santa Barbara. It takes courageous leadership, commitment to evidence-based research and the conviction that literacy is a social justice issue and must be within reach of every single student in our schools.

Cheri Rae is the mother of two children who attended local schools and graduated from Santa Barbara High School. She is an education advocate, the director of The Dyslexia Project nonprofit, and the author of several books including Dyslexia Land: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia. 

Images: Photo by Clever Visuals/Unsplash; Twitter;;;

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