Why Jimmy Can’t Read in Chicago

February 20, 2024

The letter of the day is B: Bureaucracy, benefits, and billions

The school reading wars have raged since the 1800s and consists of two camps: Those who believe that children learn to read through phonics and those that believe that children read using a whole language approach. A third recent addition to the ongoing battle over how to teach reading skills is referred to as balanced literacy, which combines the best of both phonics and whole language.

In preschool and kindergarten after recognizing each letter of the alphabet both in lower and upper case, phonics teaches that letters have their own corresponding sounds and that some consonants can be blended to form new sounds. Children are not taught letter sounds in alphabetical order, rather pupils ate instructed in an order of hierarchal importance based on frequency. First, for example, teachers may start letter sounds based on each child’s name before moving on to the letters: s, t, p, n, i, and a. It’s quite easy to make numerous words from these initial letters, their sounds, and rhyming words—sit, pit, nit, sat, pat, sin, pin, tin, etc. Words can easily be deconstructed by their individual letter sounds then brought together as a word: S-i-t, sit.

Naturally, not all words in the English language can be decoded in this way, and these words are the ones known as sight words (e.g. the, she, said), which must be memorized. Teachers have been using the 220 Dolch sight words, which were considered the most frequently used sight words seen by readers (excluding nouns) for kindergarten through the second grade since they appeared in the 1930s. The Fry list, first appearing in 1957 and updated in 1980, focused its attention on the1,000 most frequently used words beyond grade two. Both lists need children to memorize rather than sound out words, which is a whole language approach.

The problem with memorization of sight words is that there are words on the lists that can be sounded out like men and spell. Why include words that can be sounded out phonetically on a list with words that do not follow a phonemic pattern?

This leads us to the infamous 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read written by Rudolf Flesch, a read ability expert and writing consultant. In his work on reading education, Flesch contended that the “look-and-say” method of memorizing words rather than using phonics was contrary to thousands of years of civilization and created regression. Flesch was also convinced that the use of leveled readers was a slow, painstaking process where words that were “hammered” into children’s heads were merely added to higher level text or predictable book with some additions to be memorized. If, however, phonics was used consistently, children could read anything without need for leveled texts. As Flesch wrote:

“What I suggested was very simple: go back to the ABC’s. Teach children the 44 sounds of English and how they are spelled. They can sound out each word from left to right and read it off the page.”

The battle over whole language and phonics has reached a crescendo because today there is the “science of reading” that proves children learn to read with phonics. What exactly is the science? According to Heather Hollingsworth of the Associated Press, the science includes brain studies and the use of MRIs. Others cite research in best practices over decades. Additionally, there is the less scientific push by parents of dyslexics and English language learners to find another way to teach reading other than rote memorization of words, cuing, or guessing.

The problem with literacy is not limited to Chicago Public Schools or Illinois; it extends across our country. Those who compare the United States to more homogeneous countries such as Japan are disingenuous. Regardless, with the massive amount of tax dollars poured into the public-school systems, there is no excuse for high illiteracy rates.

In the attempt to tackle this nagging literacy problem, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled its 2024 Illinois Comprehensive Literacy Plan laying out three goals to improve literacy in the state:

“Providing high-quality literacy instruction for every student, equipping educators with the necessary support and resources to deliver this instruction effectively, and enabling leaders to establish equitable literacy learning environments.”

It took two years to come up with three goals that are obvious.

After decades of whole language approaches which morphed into balanced literacy, both approaches have been debunked. So, now Illinois’ focus on high-quality literacy instruction isa return to phonics. But be aware that no district is mandated to use the Illinois Comprehensive Literacy Plan. It is meant as a guide for individual school districts to use as they see fit.

A plan to be used as a guide is a waste of time and tax dollars. Yet, the reason curriculum changes are not mandated comes down to money. School districts ready to make the change are already asking for more state funding to buy new materials.

Prior to the 2022-2023 school year, CPS unveiled its own online curriculum. Known as Skyline, it cost Chicago taxpayers $135 million. Skyline was meant to provide pre-made lessons to teachers in each area of study found all on one site. According to a March2023 Chalkbeat article, Skyline was not deemed mandatory curriculum choice for schools. However, there was pressure applied on CPS schools opting out of Skyline to provide information about which alternative high-quality curriculum the school preferred or get on board with Skyline.

Noting the Illinois State Board of Education’s tilt toward phonics, Skyline added phonemic awareness and phonics curricula to its pre-k through grade 2 units. However, a review of the scope and sequence of the English/Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in these younger grades shows there is still a heavier emphasis on memorization of what it calls “high frequency” and “trick words.” Additionally, the core of ELA instruction in the formative years still adheres to the methods of leveled reading and the use of illustrations to gain comprehension. In other words, without major changes, CPS is adhering to a balanced literacy program that has already been disproven.

If Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is the goal, CPS is doing remarkably well. For example: At the beginning of first grade, the students read a story called Marvelolus Maravilloso about families of all different cultures and colors. By the end of the year, they are reading poems from the book Thanks a Million by Nikki Grimes. One lesson concentrates on the poem “Shelter” where a young, homeless child states: “I wish I had a room that I was forced to clean,” but by the end of the piece appreciates that at least she is not on her own. The essential question that first graders need to answer is: “How can the lives and experiences of the characters in books help us better understand our lives and experiences?” A sample student response provided in Skyline’s plan is: “I learned that I am like the girl in ‘Shelter’ because I like to be comforted by my mom.” What happened to classics like Russel Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances? No one can be offended by a badger.

One would assume most teachers would be thrilled to have ready-made, state-standard aligned lessons to literally copy and paste on their weekly lesson plans. However, by spring of2023 just under half of CPS schools used Skyline for two subject areas, though ELA was the most used Skyline curriculum.

Winning over seasoned teachers proves difficult because they are not willing to simply jump on any bandwagon. Veteran classroom educators have experienced a boomerang effect wherein the same curriculum from 20 years ago is renamed by publishing companies and marketed as new. For example: Pearson publishing and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed together to create curriculum for the federalized Common CoreState Standards. Schools were encouraged to purchase new texts based on Common Core. Nevertheless, once the new materials and tools were applied in the classroom, there was virtually no difference between the pre-Common Core literature texts and the post-Common Core literature texts other than a sticker on the front cover stating that the text aligned with Common Core State Standards.

Education is big business. Billions of dollars flow into textbook publishing companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Savaas. Furthermore, CPS, as well as many other large urban school districts, employ curriculum leaders who control the content found in physical and online texts. Though Skyline’s site states that curriculum was created “in partnership with hundreds of teachers,” a majority of the content was created by unnamed publishers like McGraw-Hill and members of the Chicago Board of Education.

The most interesting marketing tool to lure more CPS teachers toward Skyline is its use of a testimonial video.

The first educator shown is Richard Niebaum, a math teacher at Taft Freshman Academy. Taft is an International Baccalaureate school whose students come from the Northwest Side of Chicago. Enrollment for the junior high feeder school, however, is determined through an application process.

The next testimonials come from Principal Linda Foley and Assistant Principal Megan Clendening of the Walter L. Newberry Math and Science Academy, which is a magnet school.

Then, there are the positive comments coming from Principal Nicole Spicer of Bronzeville Classical School, a selective enrollment school. Later, the video cuts to the 4th and 5thgrade social science teacher Jane Hernandez at the same selective enrollment school.

Stacy Wright, a grade6-8 ELA teacher of what was formally called Caldwell Math and Science Academy — now Daisy Bates because Caldwell was “a racist,” according to its secretary — also sings the praises of Skyline. She particularly enjoys the lessons that are culturally relevant to Chicago and claims her students like the poetry selections which include lyrics from Chance the Rapper and Sunday Candy.

In a city where Mayor Johnson and the Board of Education is “rethinking how money is distributed to schools and has declared a shift away from prioritizing school choice,” there are many positive testimonials about Skyline from magnet or selective enrollment schools. Odd.

But why Johnny can’t read in Chicago can be summed up with a snapshot of one school emphasized in Skyline’s testimonial video. Spencer Elementary Technology Academy is rated as one of the “the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Illinois” on the 2022-2023 Illinois Report Card. Though the testimonial provided was from their math teacher, in both math and ELA, only 0.4 percent of students are meeting grade level expectations. In sum, the school is a mess. In the 2022-2023 school year chronic absenteeism reached 60 percent and less than 67 percent graduated eighth grade. However, the retention rate for teachers exceeds 80 percent, the majority of teachers have a master’s degree, and annual salaries are $88,000.

There is a gross disconnect between elated teachers and low performing students that needs to be addressed in CPS and within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In any other business, results matter. A business either provides quality goods or services or faces bankruptcy. Let’s be clear: CPS and CTU are businesses too; yet quality doesn’t matter. There are 29 members of the executive leadership team at CPS. Then there are the 17 people at Network Leadership, 29 members of Principal Advisory, and 20 students on the Student Advisory Council.

All of the layers of bureaucracy mean no real improvements are made, but a great deal of money is spent. Add CTU’s Stacy Davis Gates and Jackson Potter to the mix and CPS teachers are treated to high salaries, job security, ready-made lesson plans via Skyline, and no expectations. Why improve when there is no incentive to? Even if Mayor Johnson wished to apply pressure to CPS, the teachers could strike. According to Wirepoints, “Illinois is one of just 13 states where teacher strikes are legal.” Strikes cost money and keep kids out of classrooms.

The answers to the problems are easily seen but will never come to fruition without a complete overhaul of the educational system. Teachers will continue to use programs that are not in the best interests of their students because it is far easier to use the previous years’ lesson plans. Principals will be unable to rid their schools of ineffective teachers due to the union. Everyone in CPS and CTU will continue to earn high salaries. Until parents take a vested interest in questioning authority and pushing for accountability, the bureaucratic powers will continue to put their own interests ahead of the interests of children.

F-a-c-t, fact.

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