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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Kids can’t read’: The revolt that is taking on the education establishment

Robert Palazzo, the principal at Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, Pa. on April 4, 2023. Palazzo considers himself a science of reading convert.

By Sarah Mervosh

In suburban Houston, parents rose up against a top-rated school district, demanding an entirely new reading curriculum.

At an elementary school in Hutchinson, Minnesota, a veteran teacher is crusading for reform, haunted by the fear that, for 28 years, she failed children because she was not trained in the cognitive science behind reading.

And Ohio may become the latest state to overhaul reading instruction, under a plan by Gov. Mike DeWine.

“The evidence is clear,” DeWine said. “The verdict is in.”

A revolt over how children are taught to read, steadily building for years, is now sweeping school board meetings and statehouses around the country.

The movement, under the banner of “the science of reading,” is targeting the education establishment: school districts, literacy gurus, publishers and colleges of education, which critics say have failed to embrace the cognitive science of how children learn to read.

Research shows that most children need systematic, sound-it-out instruction — known as phonics — as well as other direct support, like building vocabulary and expanding students’ knowledge of the world.

The movement has drawn support across economic, racial and political lines. Its champions include parents of children with dyslexia; civil rights activists with the NAACP; lawmakers from both sides of the aisle; and everyday teachers and principals.

Together, they are getting results.

Ohio, California and Georgia are the latest states to push for reform, adding to almost 20 states that have made moves in the past two years. Under pressure, school districts are scrapping their old reading programs. Even holdouts like New York City, where hundreds of elementary schools were loyal to a popular but heavily criticized reading curriculum, are making changes.

About 1 in 3 children in the United States cannot read at a basic level of comprehension, according to a key national exam. The outcomes are particularly troubling for Black and Native American children, nearly half of whom score “below basic” by eighth grade.

“The kids can’t read — nobody wants to just say that,” said Kareem Weaver, an activist with the NAACP in Oakland, California, who has framed literacy as a civil rights issue and stars in a new documentary, “The Right to Read.”

Science of reading advocates say the reason is simple: Many children are not being correctly taught.

A popular method of teaching, known as “balanced literacy,” has focused less on phonics and more on developing a love of books and ensuring students understand the meaning of stories. At times, it has included dubious strategies, like guiding children to guess words from pictures.

The push for reform picked up in 2019, when national reading scores showed significant improvement in just two places: Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Both had required more phonics.

But what might have remained a niche education issue was supercharged by a storm of events: a pandemic that mobilized parents; COVID-19 relief money that gave school districts flexibility to change; a fresh spotlight on racial disparities after the murder of George Floyd; and a hit education podcast with a passionate following.

“There is this urgency around the story, this unbelievable grief,” said Emily Hanford, a journalist at American Public Media. Her podcast, “Sold a Story,” detailed how stars of the literacy world and their publisher diverged from scientific research. It racked up nearly 5 million downloads.

The movement has not been universally popular. School districts in Connecticut and teachers unions in Ohio, for example, pushed back against what they see as heavy-handed interference in their classrooms.

Even within the movement, there are quiet rumblings of worry. There is no established curriculum for the science of reading — it refers to a large body of research that must be woven into the craft of teaching.

Can such a sprawling and enthusiastic movement stick to the science — across thousands of schools and classrooms? Can real change be executed and sustained?

“I saw this post where somebody said, ‘Reading wars are over, science of reading won,’” said Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

“I’m sure it will be on a T-shirt soon,” he said. “But actually, nobody has won until we’ve actually seen we’ve improved literacy outcomes — especially with kids in groups where there is a long history of being left behind.”

A ‘perfect storm’

It all feels a bit familiar to Susan Neuman, an education official under former President George W. Bush.

In 2000, at the behest of Congress, a National Reading Panel recommended many strategies being argued for today. And the Bush administration prioritized phonics. Yet that effort faltered because of politics and bureaucratic snafus.

Neuman, now a professor at New York University, is among those who question whether this moment can be different. “I worry,” she said, “that it’s deja vu all over again.”

Today’s movement, though, is less top down, and far more dynamic.

“You had this perfect storm happening,” said Jennie McGahee, a mother in Hudson, Ohio, who watched her son James muddle through reading and writing in elementary school.

A former teacher, McGahee tried to help at home. But she came to believe a central problem was the curriculum: a popular program by Lucy Calkins of Columbia University’s Teachers College. Until recently, the curriculum had put less emphasis on phonics and more emphasis on children reading and writing independently.

During pandemic Zoom lessons, McGahee said, other parents in her affluent, mostly white suburb known for its schools also began to question why their children were not getting more explicit instruction.

Then last fall, “Sold a Story” scrutinized the work of Calkins and others, giving ammunition to parents like McGahee. She emailed the podcast to her school board, and at a recent meeting, marched up to the microphone.

“This will end with our curriculum changing — it’s just a matter of how long we need to fight to get this done,” said McGahee, whose son, now 12, still finds reading taxing. The district said it was piloting another program to boost phonics.

Calkins rewrote her early literacy curriculum last year to include, for the first time, daily, structured phonics to be used with the whole class. In a statement, she said she had always treated phonics as critical. But she added: “To reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more is to misunderstand what reading is, and what learning is.”

Avoiding pitfalls

At Panther Valley Elementary, a rural, low-income school in eastern Pennsylvania, the science of reading has been transformative, said the principal, Robert Palazzo.

His school had been using a reading program by influential educators Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, whose work has been questioned by science of reading advocates. The district even took out a loan to afford the curriculum, which cost around $100,000, he said.

But teachers complained: It wasn’t working. Just one-quarter of third graders were meeting benchmarks.

“I had to swallow my pride and realize that selecting that was a mistake,” Palazzo said.

Fountas and Pinnell pointed to research supporting their program and said “countless schools” had achieved positive results. Their approach, they said, includes phonics.

Panther Valley, though, used grants, donations and COVID relief money to buy a new phonics curriculum. The school also recently added 40 minutes of targeted, small-group phonics at the end of every day.

Nearly 60% of third graders are now proficient in decoding words, up from about 30% at the beginning of the school year, progress Palazzo hopes will translate to state tests this spring.

Still, experts foresee a number of pitfalls to meaningful reform on a national scale.

For starters, bringing reading science to commercial curricula is still a work in progress. Schools may scrap their old textbooks but find there is no perfect replacement.

“What’s coming along is in the right ballpark at least,” said Seidenberg, of the University of Wisconsin. But he warned against treating anything as “gospel.”

There is also the danger of overemphasizing phonics. To establish true literacy, students need to be able to not only sound out words, but also read quickly and build enough vocabulary and background knowledge for comprehension.

Another risk: impatience.

When Mississippi improved reading scores in 2019, it was touted as a “miracle.” In fact, progress came over many years, with systemic reform that included sending literacy coaches to the state’s lowest-performing schools.

“I don’t want the science of reading to be the shiny object — ‘look here, look here,’” said Jack Silva, the chief academic officer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, an early adopter of the science of reading. “You forget the hard work that it takes to implement.”

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