Literacy advocates Ruth Green (left) and Cheri Rae among those who have pushed for using phonetics to teach reading. | Credit: Courtesy

With only half of its 3rd- and 6th-grade students able to read at grade level, the Santa Barbara School District just announced it will be making major changes in how students will be taught basic reading and writing skills. It is considering one of two new approaches, both of which stress “phonemic awareness” or “science-based learning,” in which students are taught how to sound out words based on the sounds of the letters. School officials are soliciting public comment on the two proposed new approaches and are scheduled to make a decision on May 9.

Both new proposals contrast with the current teaching method known as “Whole Language” or “Balanced Learning,” which has been used by district schools since 2007. Whole Language stresses the importance for students to use context, such as an accompanying illustration, or the first initial of the word to determine its meaning. In recent years, the Whole Language orthodoxy has been under widespread attack throughout the nation; critics claim the approach is tantamount to guessing. But supporters have likened the science-based approach to rote learning, that it smacks of a back-to-basics pedagogical rigidity.  

Given the glacial pace with which school districts typically make major policy changes, this decision to change methods has taken place with breakneck speed. In response to community concern led by the likes of former school board member Ruth Green — also a former President of the State Board of Education — and longtime dyslexia awareness advocates Cheri Rae and Monie DeWitt, School Superintendent Hilda Maldonado and new assistant superintendent Stanley Munro reconvened a literacy task force late last summer that had started in the summer of 2021 but had been stalled because of COVID.

“I really applaud the district for making this change,” said Green, adding, “The district is now one-third of the way there.” For the new approach to yield positive results, Green cautioned, elementary grade teachers will have to be taught how to teach it. Without the proper teacher instruction and leadership from the top, she said, students will not make the progress they need to succeed. 

Unlike many of the educational battles now consuming school districts throughout the United States, literacy instruction somehow never got sucked into the cultural warfare vortex that issues such as racial, sexual, and gender equity have. In fact, the “scientific” approach has been championed loudly in the pages of the New York Times, the New Yorker, and on the airwaves of National Public Radio, hardly loudspeakers for Red State values or MAGA triumphalism. 

Green has argued that literacy instruction is a civil rights issue. Wealthier and whiter students also suffered from the deficiencies of “Whole Language” instruction, she noted, but their parents could afford the remedial instruction needed for their kids to read at grade level. For students whose parents could not, she said, failure to achieve basic literacy posed a major roadblock to academic achievement. The nation’s jails, Green noted, are populated by prisoners who never learned to read properly. 

As criticism against Whole Language mounted, even its founder, Lucy Calkins, was forced to acknowledge a shortcoming in her curriculum this past summer, inserting some phonemics into her instructional package. But it could not stem the tide, as school districts across the country scrambled to find programs that yielded better reading scores. In Santa Barbara’s most recent school board race, only candidate Gabe Escobedo dived headfirst into the issue, and he won, enjoying enthusiastic praise from literacy instruction reform activists.

What happens next? School district administrator Denise Alvarado, charged with implementing the change, said the shift — pending school board approval — would begin the 2023-2024 school year. Two hundred teachers and 3,000 students — grades K-6 — would be affected. The initial teacher-trainings will begin this June. “We also plan to utilize days when students are released for additional professional and learning opportunities,” she said. Alvarado took issue with either-or characterizations of the two approaches, saying that one was a science and the other was a classroom approach. Alvarado said the transition would cost the district $1.2 to $1.5 million and estimated the professional learning plan would take three years to implement.

Like teachers everywhere, Santa Barbara teachers are more exhausted and burnt out than ever since the COVID-induced lockdowns. Classroom conditions are more challenging; turnover is high and impatience even higher. Alvarado said the district is working closely with the teachers and their union. “We have been in a continuous dialogue and process for soliciting feedback,” she said, “and will continue that process.”


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