Op-Ed: SBUSD Leaders Finally Pivot from “Balanced Literacy” to “Science of Reading”

By Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit

On March 9, Santa Barbara Unified School District officials made a quiet, but extremely consequential announcement: the district’s years-long commitment to the controversial English Language instruction theory of “balanced literacy” has come to an end.

The decision means that a new, district-wide, English Language teaching curriculum, yet to be adopted, will be established on one of two other programs; crucially, both are based on what is known as the “science of reading” approach — rather than the system which SBUSD leaders steadfastly have promoted for years.

The determination, which emerged during the third meeting of SBUSD’s “Literacy Task Force,” is terrific news, a long time coming, for a district that has been mired for many years in painfully low literacy rates for its students.

It’s not quite a done deal, as the process allows for a 30-day review period for teachers and the public, between March 15 and April 20. Curriculum materials are available at the district office at 720 Santa Barbara Street and may be found online here.

On May 9th, the curriculum adoption committee will make its recommendation to the school board; we hope and expect the trustees to make the wise choice at long last by adopting the science-based approach the children of our community deserve.

As a policy matter, the science of reading is rooted in the importance of directly and systematically building student competency in the fundamental skills that lead to reading proficiency: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

As a personal matter, the district’s pivot to us feels like a kind of redemption.

For more than a decade, the two of us have pleaded with educators, administrators, school board trustees and members of the community to address the alarming and lamentable issue of low literacy in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

We’ve written articles (our reporting, analysis and commentary published on Newsmakers alone may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), shared data, met with officials in private, and spoken out in public, pointing to the failings of balanced literacy and the overwhelming evidence that favors the science of reading.

Now we encourage community members to seize this moment to review the materials and express your thoughts.

How we got here

Despite our best efforts, the district for many years continued its embrace of “balanced literacy” and, more specifically, the curriculum known as “Lucy Calkins/Units of Study.”

The approach was selected and promoted by an administrator who moved in and out of town some years ago, leaving behind a generation of struggling readers.

District officials heavily invested taxpayers’ money in its materials and in professional development. Among other things, selected educators were sent to attend the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute at Columbia University, to become more deeply immersed in the Calkins method.

SBUSD public information and other officials meanwhile generated positive stories to sell the community on an instructional approach based on a flawed theory positing that, not only will children simply learn to read if they have access to good books but also that they will develop a love for literature in the process. (see the Renewed Reading Instruction section below).

Proponents of balanced literacy stubbornly ignored the findings of the National Reading Panel in 2000, and countless studies since, about how the brain learns to read. Locally, they forged ahead, insisting that the abysmal test scores resulting from this instructional approach contained “pockets of hope,” a popular, if fatuous, phrase among education administrators.

Beyond public funding, district officials also regularly tapped the public for additional donations for their “Love of Literacy” program — spending even more resources on this failed approach.

Last school year, the district’s “Early Literacy Task Force” held several Zoom meetings, during which multiple administrators and consultants extolled the virtues of balanced literacy, the Calkins curriculum and their commitment to it.

All those hours produced virtually nothing, however, and the last scheduled meeting of the “Early Literacy Task Force” was abruptly cancelled — amid a mass exodus of top district administrators that followed the hiring of Superintendent Hilda Maldonado.

A new start

We started all over during the current school year, with a new task force overseen by a new administration.

The first two meetings of the newly-constituted “Literacy Task Force” seemed to offer no more promise than those from last year, with a highly scripted, top-down approach run by district officials, to the great frustration of these citizen members.

Then a switch was flipped.

By the third and final meeting of the task force (whose members, in fact, had no actual assigned tasks, other than to attend meetings) district officials suddenly changed direction.

We’re left to wonder what, exactly, put them, finally, on the right path.

After long ignoring pesky local advocates, perhaps they could no longer ignore the cumulative effect of ongoing national reporting on the subject, such as:

Denise Alvarado, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction and the leader of the meeting, is new to the district this year.

She declined to characterize Santa Barbara Unified categorically as a Lucy Calkins district: “There is a lot of inconsistency in this district, not everyone is using it,” she said. “There are pockets here and there. Some schools are using it more than others.”

However, she flatly (and happily) also stated: “We are not moving forward using that curriculum.”

Trapped in alternative timeline?

It was as if the past decade never happened, with no mention of the massive investment in balanced literacy the district made in training and materials.

Instead, it appears, the district now is now 100 percent on-board with the science of reading, and there’s a “that never happened” perspective regarding their former love of Lucy.

Replacing former skepticism about — if not hostility toward — the science of reading and its proponents, officials now embrace it, albeit couched in the phrase, “systematic, explicit foundational skills.”

They also now exude confidence about transforming the entire educational establishment from way of thinking—and teaching reading—to another. They are prepared to jettison their previous training, commitment to, and belief in one methodology to embrace a totally different one.

Exactly how, and how well, this re-education process of teachers, principals, and administrators will take place, and who will provide the extensive training and support needed, remains to be seen.

“We don’t have anything specific yet,” Alvarado said, when asked about what goals the district has set, a timeline for their implementation and their measure of success. “Our expectation is to utilize the curriculum we adopt with all leaders.”

Offering additional hope for the future, literacy coach Mallory Price pointed to the enrollment of approximately three dozen district educators and administrators in LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), the highly regarded two-year professional course.

Data points are people

The district finally is headed in the right direction when it comes to literacy.

It will take a lot more than the adoption of a new curriculum beginning in the next school year to make significant progress, however.

More than fifty percent of SBUSD students are not proficient readers. It can be easy to forget that every “data point” about this systemic educational failure tells a sad tale about an individual; in real numbers, this means upwards of 6,000 struggling students who are currently enrolled in the district’s elementary, junior high and high schools.

Notably, that number does not represent those who are now adults — who have never been taught essential literacy skills. Don’t they still have a right to read? What will be done for them?

Those who have struggled with balanced literacy remain at risk of never meeting their potential, as they bear the lifelong burden of bad decisions by administrators they never even met.

In a district that proclaims, “Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day,” they missed out.

Now that district officials at long last are poised to eliminate SBUSD’s long-held theoretical instructional approach, surely, those individuals who were subjected to it deserve compensatory, effective reading instruction.

Bottom line

The long-term effects of balanced literacy in our schools negatively affects the lives of individuals and families as well as the preparedness of our workforce and the overall health of our community. When no one is accountable, we are all responsible.

We need informed, committed, and lasting leadership from every sector in the community to step in and help out to ensure that in Santa Barbara, Literacy Is For Everyone.


A report on effective literacy instruction in California, issued on March 9 by Pivot Learning, offers high-level thinking on the subject about what is needed. And Gov. Newsom has offered his suggested Literacy Road Map.

Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit offer literacy support, resources and advocacy for the Santa Barbara community through The Dyslexia Project. Contact them at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com

Op-Ed’s are written by community members, not representatives of edhat. The views and opinions expressed in Op-Ed articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of edhat.
Do you have an opinion on something local? Share it with us at info@edhat.com.


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  1. If you couldn’t tell from the article, this is great news for our local schools. Not sure why, though, this is written as one of the most negative nancy pieces I’ve seen in a long time. Nothing pleases some people. There are some good points in here, but boy is it tough to get through all the extra…Glad the school district is going with something more modern and scientifically based. Even if that means “jettisoning” old training (boo hoo, times change!)

  2. Bottom line is the district FINALLY made a necessary change. What took them so long? Their (our) students have been largely struggling for far too long in basic reading, writing, and math. I appreciate the authors’ and others’ efforts to force this change out of a reluctant and slow to move institution that is the SBUSD.

    • STUDENTS NEED A STRONG FOUNDATION in basic skills, before they can master the advanced stuff. While needing to build their skills incrementally, the SBUSD forces district teachers to push students along whether they master the material or not, losing many students in the process. This is as true with math as it is with language arts.

  3. Getting a science of reading curriculum is the first step; but implementing it takes 2-3 years and needs teachers buy in and training. What happens to the 6,500 students who are struggling now and years behind. Is the district going to offer intensive interventions with the learning loss monies? So far only 500 are invited to summer school and it is only 4 weeks. These students had painfully low scores before the pandemic and then had learning loss on top of it. How does the district plan to address these unmet needs.?

  4. Yes, it’s about time!
    The leadership and bureaucracy have become distracted away from their core mission by prioritizing things in reverse. Reading and math can be taught in an atmosphere of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, and diversity but get lost when the core mission is teaching acceptance, tolerance, inclusion and diversity in a secondary atmosphere of reading, and math.
    Parents have been pressuring the district for years now to get rid of “balanced Literacy”
    How did this change? Many foundations have contributed big $$$ to keep this program in place, another “who knows who”. One huge cause for pause, “games up” was when staunch supporter Shawn Carey ran away from SBUSD off to County Education. Now she is their problem. She was a huge protector of balanced literacy.
    This is clearly to the credit of all the hard-working persistent parents that continued to pressure for positive change.

    • Finally hope for local children! “It will take a lot more than the adoption of a new curriculum beginning in the next school year to make significant progress, however. More than fifty percent of SBUSD students are not proficient readers. It can be easy to forget that every “data point” about this systemic educational failure tells a sad tale about an individual; in real numbers, this means upwards of 6,000 struggling students who are currently enrolled in the district’s elementary, junior high and high schools.”
      Before I die, I hope SBUSD elementary students will be are taught to read , after four decades of failed SBUSD Administrators.

  5. Btw Lucy Calkins’ ideas were nothing new. In the 1980’s this faddish method was called the “whole language” approach. It used popular children’s literature to entice them to read, without teaching them how to read, without teaching them the science of reading. Sure, lots of kids could pick up the patterns, memorize and learn, and others could basically learn through osmosis. However, 20% would struggle for the rest of their lives because they were never really taught, explicitly, that there were rules, patterns, and exceptions (etc.). Whole Language (and Lucy Calkins) failed them. Any teacher with common sense supplemented the curriculum with phonics because that’s what was available (at Bennetts, using their own money).

    • Primary school educators understand that students FIRST learn to read and THEN read to learn, the former in grades K-2 typically, and the latter around grade 3, typically. The children left behind never get a second chance. Literature-based methods leave many children behind. It is absurd to think that an educator would believe that comprehension can be overlooked because “now we are teaching phonics.” However, NO child can comprehend material that they are not able to read in the first place (of course, second language learners have added challenges). For this reason, the focus on comprehension increases incrementally over the course of the early elementary school years. Oftentimes, those who struggle with comprehension later in life are those who were struggling to learn to read at the beginning. With approaches like Lucy Calkins’, many children got left behind.

  6. Forty years ago I was proud to be part of an Adult Ed system run by SBCC that had classes at numerous campuses. Many were “Life Enhancement for the Older Adult” and taught basic skills as well as provided a meeting place for adults of all ages to meet to learn about a common interest. ESL classes were offered to suit working adults, and literacy programs for all levels. The programs have been drastically cut back in the years since, but reviving them could go a long way towards addressing the problems of the community members who are not competent readers. It is a system already in place where the schools can reach out to the community, and in this case they drastically need to make up for what they have done to a generation of kids who are sabotaged by poor literacy skills.

  7. Maybe, just MAYBE, if a PARENT read to their child (children) everyday, sometime after school and modeled reading a book, it would take literacy a long way in a young persons life…The schools and teacher’s can only do so much-whether Math or Reading. It’s the parents responsibility to make sure their children succeed as functioning adults.

  8. Coastwatch: I appreciate your opinion and feel parents reading and example is important in so many things but surprisingly in actuality many parents who read to their children every night find that it is not enough for their child to be proficient..For the majority of students need to learn to “decode.” which is learning how to break up words into smaller parts and combine the sound to letter correspondence . This is something that needs to be taught in an explicit, systemic manner to 60% of our students or they won’t progress. The 5 things you need to be able to do to read is phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. About 40% of students will learn to read without a struggle but the other 60% is made up of 20% students with learning differences and about 40% students whose first language is not english. The other vulnerable students who are behind are foster youth , homeless and students with socioeconomic hardship. When you consider that Santa Barbara County has second highest child poverty rate in CA and California has the highest child poverty rate in the US when cost of living is taken into account. 22.8% of children below the poverty line meaning they earn less than 30,000 for a family of four. These families can not afford outside tutoring which costs 120.00 -150.00 per hour for a reading interventionist who works sometimes for 8 weeks at 4 hours a day to get one student up about two grade levels typically. Some students need two interventions like that to be successful if it is caught after third grade. If schools teach in the evidenced based manner, have a proactive approach which includes universal testing of all students, train teachers in science of reading , reducing class sizes would allow us to have 95% of students at grade level by end of third. This is part of the current right to read movement. It all comes down to equity. Many of our students are counting on learning to read at the public school. Schools need to get this right. Because only parents of means can afford tutors and the high price of a summer intervention . I am glad we now are about to choose the evidenced based curriculum but that is just step one… won’t be enough if we don’t do proactive approach, including universal screening early and intervene for all who are behind now. Our focus should be on the unmet students needs not expecting it to be handled by parents and interventionists in the summers but a proactive approach instead of the current ” wait to fail” approach where many students are not recognized until after third or sixth grade. By that time it has also taken a toll on their self esteem as well. And maybe the schools can’t do it alone and our community needs to own it and offer the interventions that are sorely needed. If you want to understand all about how to learn to read, and why so many are stuck and behind… listen to Emily Hanford, an investigative journalist, “Sold a Story.”

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