On paper, the situation looks great. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has a budget of $750 million to allegedly educate about 34,835 students. This comes to over $21,000 per student. Not only is the district well-resourced, but it is also led by a big-brained thinker of a superintendent who rakes in a salary and benefits package worth over $425,500 per year. Why then do the elementary schools in this district rate in the lower 50% of all California schools and have an average reading proficiency score of 34% as opposed to the state average of 50%? Why are only 18% of Black and 23% of Hispanic kids on track to be able to read by the fourth grade?
As it turns out, the culprit is a spoiled group of teachers who put SJW fads above the welfare of children. This story comes from an unlikely source, a TIME Magazine article titled Inside the Massive Effort to Change the Way Kids Are Taught to Read. The headline is misleading because it is really about a bushfire rebellion against the stupidity that has conspired to prevent students from achieving a fundamental skill.
As a teacher in Oakland, Calif., Kareem Weaver helped struggling fourth- and fifth-grade kids learn to read by using a very structured, phonics-based reading curriculum called Open Court. It worked for the students, but not so much for the teachers. “For seven years in a row, Oakland was the fastest-gaining urban district in California for reading,” recalls Weaver. “And we hated it.”
The teachers felt like curriculum robots—and pushed back. “This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” says Weaver, describing their response to the approach. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.” It was replaced in 2015 by a curriculum that emphasized rich literary experiences. “Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that this new progressive way of teaching reading was the way,” he says.
Now Weaver is heading up a campaign to get his old school district to reinstate many of the methods that teachers resisted so strongly: specifically, systematic and consistent instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. “In Oakland, when you have 19% of Black kids reading—that can’t be maintained in the society,” says Weaver, who received an early and vivid lesson in the value of literacy in 1984 after his cousin got out of prison and told him the other inmates stopped harassing him when they realized he could read their mail to them. “It has been an unmitigated disaster.” In January 2021, the local branch of the NAACP filed an administrative petition with the Oakland unified school district (OUSD) to ask it to include “explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” in its curriculum.
All of this begs the question, if you are unwilling to teach kids how to read by associating sounds with symbols and saying them aloud until they are mastered, what is your game plan?
There are many schools of thought on how best to aid this process, but the main contretemps has been about whether kids need to be taught how to sound out words explicitly or whether, if you give them enough examples and time, they’ll figure out the patterns. The latter theory, sometimes known as whole language, says teaching phonics is boring and repetitive, and a large percentage of English words diverge from the rules. (Hello there, though, thought, through, trough and tough!) But if you immerse children in beautiful stories, they’ll be motivated to crack the code, to recognize each word. The counterargument is that reading is as connected to hearing as it is to sight. It begins, phonics advocates say, with speech. This understanding, and the data that supports it, has become known as the science of reading.
This debate was supposedly settled in 2000, when the National Reading Panel, a big group of literacy experts that examined hundreds of studies on what instruction kids need to read, released a report. It recommended explicit instruction in the things Weaver’s petition asks for: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This was a victory for the phonics camps. But it is one thing to declare a war is over and another to parcel out territory.
The article goes on to give a solid rundown of what different states are doing to get back to the basics of learning.
I don’t think the problem as laid out by Mr. Weaver is all that different from that facing a lot of professions. While kids go through Third Grade reading once (hopefully), for the teacher, it is a Groundhog Day experience. If they make a teaching career, they will teach this same class, mostly the same way, for 45 or so years. This is why police departments end up with “taskforces,” SWAT teams, kiddie porn viewing teams, and all kinds of other manpower sumps at the expense of cops in patrol cars or on the sidewalks. You see the cop walking a beat a few times. The cop does it every day for the rest of his career. When I was a young lieutenant in what was then called a Basic Combat Training battalion (Fort Leonard Wood, MO), drill sergeants wanted a break from road marches and teaching close order drill and rifle marksmanship because they did this week after week. But when they got away from tried-and-true basics, trainee test scores plummeted.
What makes the problem with teaching reading so pernicious is that without reading, nothing else is possible. They don’t catch up unless a child is reading by around fourth grade. If you believe in the “school-to-prison pipeline” bullsh**, this is where the process starts. Kids check out of school around age nine because they can’t understand the material they are taught in all classes. If we know what works, we’re allowing a clique of teachers who think they are much smarter than they are to cripple a generation of kids because they are bored and too spoiled and arrogant to follow a plan.
Last week I posted on Ron DeSantis’ new program to get veterans into Florida’s classrooms; Ron DeSantis’ Veterans-to-Teachers Program Is a Great Idea Except for One Huge Flaw. In that post, I say:
I appreciate anything that gets normal human beings into the classroom who will spend more time inculcating the basics into students rather than regaling them with tales of sexual deviance. Still, the answer to our education system’s woes doesn’t lie in putting bandaids on a sucking chest wound by increasing the pool of applicants. The answer lies in new models of public education that are not subject to fads and don’t create barriers to keep competent and dedicated people out of the classroom.
Teaching methods in critical subjects like reading and math can’t be left to the trendsetters in academic education or to the nutters who are attracted to an education career like lint is attracted to Velcro. Teaching in the basics is not a place where you get to exhibit your pet theories and originality. Unless and until we fix the problem of teachers refusing to follow a program that works rather than a program that makes them feel good, we will continue to squander trillions of dollars on a failed system that fails because it performs as designed.