Opinion: Early reading instruction in San Francisco public schools: A love affair with what has failed

Most recent data indicates 55% of students do not meet standards in English language arts

Megan Potente and Laurance Lem Lee

Special to The Examiner

The initial findings of a much anticipated San Francisco Unified School District curriculum audit were released Tuesday, adding to pressure from parents and educators to change how kids are taught to read. The audit findings point to major deficiencies in the district’s K-five English language arts curriculum as it is written and observed inside classrooms. Those who have been pushing for change are not surprised by the findings and are now hopeful that the district will finally acknowledge the deep problems and commit to change.

At public comment during the Monday meeting, parent Havah Kelley said, “Nothing about what I heard today surprises me. … I’ve been trying to help my son for about five years.”

Literacy is the foundation of equitable education, and far too many SFUSD students leave elementary school without achieving their basic right to read. The most recent SFUSD performance data indicate that 55% of students do not meet standards in English language arts, and there are huge gaps in performance between subgroups. Only 20% of Black students, 15% of English learners and 16% of students with disabilities met standards in English language arts.

When asked if he was concerned about the state of literacy, SFUSD grandparent Rex Ridgeway responded, “Concerned is an understatement. A better word is ‘distressed.’ Just look at the reading test scores at Bret Harte, 8%; Charles Drew, 19%; El Dorado ES, 11%; Carver ES, 16%; and Malcolm X, 23%. It is so obvious that the district has failed those schools and their students.”

The California Reading Report Card ranks districts by the third grade reading performance of socioeconomically disadvantaged Latino students, an “apples to apples” comparison that gives a good picture of how well districts teach reading. SFUSD falls in the bottom 10% of the 287 ranked districts. There are districts with lower funding and higher levels of poverty that have better reading outcomes than SFUSD.

The truth is we know how to teach kids to read, but SFUSD ignores the science and has done so for many years. A vast body of research from many related disciplines, conducted in the U.S. and around the world over five decades, has resulted in an emerging consensus about how learning to read happens and what is going on in the brains of those who struggle. This body of research is commonly referred to as the science of reading and documents what has worked for the largest number of children.

Asked about updates to early reading instruction curricula, Nicole Priestly, SFUSD’s chief academic officer, indicated at that Monday meeting that nothing will change soon, since “some of the curriculums have high marks in some of the areas but not in others. And so that will beg the question of how we might want to make that come together in some form of action. But that’s a question that remains to be seen, and we won’t be able to answer that until we actually engage with the materials and perhaps go through the pilot.”

Districts serious about improving literacy implement systems and teaching practices grounded in the research. Recent California success stories, including Lodi Unified and Nystrom Elementary, show how following the scientific evidence improves reading outcomes. In a recent EdSource roundtable on early literacy, attorney Mark Rosenbaum made the point, “We don’t need a task force. We don’t need more studies. We just need a commitment.”

Indeed, what we need from SFUSD is a commitment to the changes recommended in the curriculum audit. The district maintains a firm grip on a controversial approach widely recognized for failing to meet the needs of many children. SFUSD names its approach the Comprehensive Approach to Literacy, which is more commonly referred to in other districts as balanced literacy.

This approach is based on a discredited “whole language” theory debunked decades ago. Balanced literacy teaches kids to guess words using an assortment of cues, like pictures and context, instead of sounding words out. It treats foundational skills haphazardly, without the practice many kids must have in order to learn. Balanced literacy also fails to build systematically the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for reading comprehension and access to grade-level content.

The most popular balanced literacy curricula used in K-two SFUSD classrooms, Lucy Calkins Units of Study and Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, are also the most poorly rated on the market. In addition, one expensive intervention program, Reading Recovery, intended to close reading gaps for the lowest-performing first grade students, was recently found to actually have a negative impact on reading performance over the long term. This comes as no surprise to those who understand the science of reading and the design of Reading Recovery. Yet instead of moving away from the program, SFUSD is actively hiring new Reading Recovery teachers for the 2022-23 school year.

When we talk with concerned parents about this issue, they usually are dumbfounded. Why doesn’t the district change its ways? Why are they using methods and materials known to fail so many kids? Many parents ask us how they can teach their children to read, because they are not getting what they need at school. And business is booming for private tutoring, which can cost between $100 and $200 per hour session, with three to five sessions per week recommended. Literacy should not be a luxury afforded to those with financial resources or parents who can take on the job of teaching their kids to read.

Many SFUSD teachers, who have faced no shortage of challenges in recent years, are fed up with the district’s early literacy plan. Douglas Rich, a long-time SFUSD literacy specialist, believes the district is dangerously change averse.

“The SFUSD administration is too focused on an outdated and harmful philosophy of teaching and learning,” he said. “They like to talk a lot about their philosophy, but none of that has translated into useful guidance for teachers. I read somewhere that you don’t have to operate out of great malice to do great harm. The absence of understanding is sufficient.”

Megan Potente, M.Ed., a 20-year elementary school teacher, who worked for many years in SFUSD, is a parent of an SFUSD graduate and serves as co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA. Laurance Lem Lee is a second-generation Chinese American, SFUSD graduate, general contractor and good government advocate. You can follow him on Twitter @eyessfboe.

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