For parents like Caitlin Boyle, the public schools in Fort Mill, South Carolina offer an attractive alternative to the much larger school system across the state line. It is a small district with high test scores and low poverty.
Boyle says her family moved from Mecklenburg County several years ago, drawn to the Fort Mill schools. But now she is leading a campaign to get the Fort Mill school district to ditch what she calls discredited reading materials and techniques.
“I always assumed that the district would, of course, use the best reading program for my son,” said Boyle, who says she recently learned that wasn’t true.
The district of nearly 18,000 students is experiencing the latest twist in America’s long struggle over how to teach reading.
“This debate has gone on for many, many, many years. You can go back to phonics lessons, even 20 or 30 years ago, when you were still in school,” said Joe Burke, director of communications for Fort Mill schools.
The latest round is embroiled in culture wars, but also fueled by an American Public Media reporter’s deep dive on the subject. Some in Fort Mill say it’s time to follow the lead of North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools when it comes to reading.
Boyle illustrates the complexity of the debate. She is vice president of the York County Chapter from Moms For Liberty, a national group that formed shortly after COVID-19 shut down schools. The mask mandates were one of the first flashpoints for the parental rights group, and Boyle says she removed her son from Fort Mill schools when South Carolina required students to wear masks. She says that the way she was taught to read there has caused her ongoing problems with reading and spelling.
Fort Mill schools and the local chapter of Moms for Liberty have also been through other “culture war” shocks, such as critical race theory and books that some parents find inappropriate.
But where most culture wars issues stir emotional issues, the reading critiques that Boyle and others have delivered at recent school board meetings tend to be academic. They talk about meta-analysis of data, the string model of reading, and a host of curriculum and training providers.
Reading the podcast generated debate
Burke says the Fort Mill district is aware of the complex and nuanced research related to reading, and uses it to tailor reading instruction to each child’s needs. The district uses an approach called balanced literacy, which includes some of the material Boyle and other parents oppose, but also many of the techniques they support.
Much of the recent debate is fueled by “Sold a Story: How Teaching Children to Read Gone So Wrong,” a four-hour podcast by American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. It came out just a few months ago.
“The ‘Sold A Story’ podcast was my introduction to balanced literacy and my ‘Aha!’ moment. Because before now I was wondering why, why is my son having a hard time reading? Father of Fort Mill Stephanie Sherrill told the school board earlier this month.
Sherrill, who is not a member of Moms for Liberty, says she had wondered if her daughter had a reading disability. After listening to the podcast, she says she realized that “they’re not teaching (kids) to read. They are teaching memorization and guessing context based on other words and that doesn’t work for her, and it doesn’t work for almost half of the students in her fourth grade class who are struggling.”
“Sold a Story” traces America’s reading struggles to research done with New Zealand schoolchildren in the 1960s. That research, Hanford reports, was later proven wrong. But by then it had become a tremendously popular approach to teaching reading, one that encourages children to freely explore reading and infer meaning from written words rather than learn to pronounce them.
The case against Calkins and cueing
One of the biggest proponents of that approach is an American professor named Lucy Calkins. She created workshops and materials for educators that encourage students to use a strategy called cueing. Instead of pronouncing a word phonetically, students are asked to figure out the meaning by looking at pictures and the first letter of the word.
Calkins herself acknowledged in “Sold a Story” that the prompts don’t work well for many students and is revising her material.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools recently rejected the signaling strategy after using it for several years. “This is a practice that research has indicated we need to abandon. Your child will not be taught to review the pictures to identify words or guess based on the first letter he sees. We want our students to look at each letter of the words, apply phonics knowledge, and sound out the words!” the district said in a Document “The science of reading” published last year.
South Carolina state senator Michael Johnson is married to a Fort Mill teacher. He says he spoke to several local educators and heard mixed reviews.
“Those range from ‘Lucy Calkins’ system works’ to ‘Lucy Calkins’ system, you can’t teach it, you have to ban it in all of South Carolina,’” he said.
Johnson says he’d like to see South Carolina take a stronger hand in limiting the use of those materials and follow the lead of states like North Carolina and Mississippithat require teachers to receive extensive training in what has been called the science of reading.
“We are trying to move in some of the directions that we have seen our neighboring states and other states go in,” he said.
Two years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $50 million to put all elementary school teachers in a program called LETRS, which is short for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. Johnson says South Carolina must also be willing to put up a lot of money.
“If you’re going to move in that direction, what you have to do is spend a lot of money on training. You can’t just demand it and expect them to train themselves,” Johnson said.
He said that’s not likely to happen this year.
A big bill to see the accounts
“Balanced literacy” and “science of reading” are terms that span broad schools of thought and research, with varying interpretations and many companies marketing related products.
Burke, the spokesman for the Fort Mill schools, said his district selects materials from a menu of state-approved products.
“We actually started adding pieces from other programs like reading science before this discussion really started,” he said.
Burke says district leaders see no need to ban any of the options, including the Lucy Calkins material.
Stephanie Foltz is a former Reading Specialist with two children in Fort Mill Schools and a member of Moms for Liberty. She says that a truly balanced literacy program should include all the extra support that would help children learn to read, but the Lucy Calkins material seems to be displacing that kind of instruction.
Foltz, Boyle and other parents critical of Calkins’ approach submitted a request for bills dating back to 2016 to see how much the district spends on that material. They were told it would cost $2,354.82, with $588.70 upfront before the district began pulling the records. They followed through with reduced requests, but still faced fees ranging from $200 to $600.
Burke says South Carolina Freedom of Information Act allows fees to cover the cost of public records requests.
“The district has chosen to do this when a request is broad enough in scope to require significant staff hours or materials such as copies to complete,” he said.
Doing well or not?
Burke says the Fort Mill reading data shows that “we’re doing very well with everything we’re currently using.”
In general, Nearly 74% of all elementary students scored at or above grade level on state tests last year. But across the country, reading scores are tied to demographics. Simply put, students who arrive with advantages from home are much more likely to pass reading tests.
The Fort Mill School District has the lowest poverty level of any district in South Carolina, based on the 2022 State Poverty Index.
“Parents in this district, they have all the circumstances of life working in their favor to get their children reading when they enter kindergarten,” said Boyle, who argues that Fort Mill shouldn’t get too smug about the pass rates they reflect on family benefits to a great extent.
Like most districts in the United States, Fort Mill also has racial discrepancies in reading scores. White students who make up the majority of the district had a 77% pass rate on elementary school reading tests last year, compared to 48% for black students.
Nichell Newton is a former CMS educator who has two children in Fort Mill schools and has run twice for school board there. She is black and says the biggest problems with reading are in the city’s historically black community. paradise neighborhood.
Newton isn’t ready to declare her allegiance to Moms For Liberty, but she agrees that Fort Mill teachers need more training in reading science.
“It’s not good, especially if we call ourselves the number 1 school district,” he said. “We have to do better.”
Burke says that if the state requires changes, Fort Mill will comply.
Until then, the debate over the value of Lucy Calkins’ reading lessons is likely to continue. There are two general points of agreement: Burke and parents say reading shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” approach. And they all praise the work of local teachers, even if they disagree about how those teachers are being trained and what materials they are given to work with.