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Op-Ed: Why SBUSD Must Address Teacher Pay, Burnout Woes for New Reading Program to Succeed

By Cheri Rae

On Tuesday night, the Santa Barbara Unified school board voted to spend $1,753,000 for a new reading curriculum.

It’s an action I’ve long wanted to see, and have worked for years to help bring about. But it didn't feel so great by the time it happened, because of a troubling juxtaposition of issues that converged upon each other at the SBUSD meeting,

Before the vote on the reading program that night, a standing-room-only crowd of teachers expressed their concerns over financial woes and concerns over their physical and mental health, with some even sadly reporting they’ve decided to leave town because they just can’t afford to live here anymore.

As a large and loud group of district teachers demonstrated for significantly more pay and better working, inside the boardroom and outside the school district’s downtown offices, some testified to the board about their heartbreaking inability to serve their students; one detailed alarming special education conditions for moderate to severe students, while another addressed how so many of his high school students just can’t read.

For a district like Santa Barbara's, the successful implementation of a completely different approach to reading instruction would be complicated enough in the best of times.

At a time when the workforce, from first-year teachers to 30-year veterans, is being called upon and expected to carry it out while experiencing life-altering worry over the cost of living in Santa Barbara and their ability to continue to live here, it’s almost unimaginable.

Bye-bye Lucy Calkins, After the teachers finished their protest during the public comment period that begins the meeting, the school board got down to business: They voted to approve the purchase of a structured literacy curriculum known as "Wit & Wisdom," a supplemental foundational approach known as "Fundations" and a library of what’s known as “decodable” readers known as "Geodes." The total cost of the curriculum, along with three years of professional development is not to exceed $1,753,000.

For years I’ve worked with colleagues and allies in the community, practically begging district officials to jettison their commitment to the Lucy Calkins Units of Study “balanced literacy” approach. Now that they have finally decided to make a complete turnaround in the approach to literacy instruction, I want to feel good, even triumphant, at the very least, hopeful.

But the thought of those sign-waving, whistle-blowing, soul-baring teachers keeps me from celebrating what should be a big step forward. I’m trying to envision how these stressed-out teachers can possibly manage to add in the extra professional development training that will be required for them to implement this completely new approach to teaching reading.

Next fall.

Before and after. Soon, the teachers will soon be expected to throw out everything they’ve been taught by high-paid consultants hired by the district for their belief in the three-cueing “balanced literacy” approach. That was then.

This is now, when district officials have suddenly made a dramatic pivot in their beliefs about reading instruction; for the past few months they have decided to believe in science, with the expectation that classroom teachers must quickly embrace the change and completely alter their instruction.

Before the board meeting, I consulted with literacy leaders throughout California, and based on their expertise, emailed several questions for school board members to consider. I received confirmation from two of the five trustees that they had received my email; one of these two mentioned the email had been forwarded to the superintendent and administrators. Nothing beyond that. In the brief 90 seconds allotted for public comment, I also offered the suggestions relayed to me, including:

  • Designate (or hire) a single experienced individual who would be responsible and accountable for coordinating and providing leadership, encouragement, and expertise for the new literacy implementation.

  • Make support of teachers, including prep time for these new lesson plans, ongoing professional development; and a generous transition period from one approach to the other, top priorities in the changeover of systems.

  • Emphasize the need for transparency and sharing of information as well as clear vision, goals, and strategies. I suggested as a model, the excellent Oakland Unified School District ELA website. Their transition away from Lucy Calkins to science of reading came about in large part through the leadership of the NAACP and community members who presented the school board with a comprehensive petition in January of 2021. SInc then they have teamed with educational leaders to roll out their plan in a reasonable way, which the district continues to view it as an ongoing process. It seems obvious that these two troubling issues, low literacy and low pay coupled with poor morale among teachers are inextricably linked.

We can’t solve one without solving the other.

Bottom line. As much as I want our children to finally be taught with a reading program that aligns with how they learn, I have an overriding worry that in the administration’s timetable to get it done, speeding up is not in the best interests of everyone involved.

Pay the teachers what they deserve, what they’re worth, before expecting them to revamp all their instructional practices on top of everything else that lowers their quality of life.

I’ve been working on literacy advocacy for 13 years and, during that time, have seen many well-funded programs to improve literacy go bad by poor administration, lack of leadership, and failure to think the whole project though.

I never thought I’d suggest taking more time to get it right, but teachers need to earn for students to learn.

Cheri Rae is the director of The Dyslexia Project and the author of DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia. You can reach her at

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