By Megan Potente and Elizabeth Statmore
The news coverage of the rise in 9th grade Ds & Fs at Lowell High School after this first year of lottery admissions fails to mention two things: the fact that in a wealthy city that prizes equity, San Francisco Unified School District has been promoting an unacceptably high percentage of 8th graders who cannot read at grade level; and the fact that the sudden change in Lowell admissions is what is shining a bright light on these disastrous reading results.
A recent audit of SFUSD’s K-5 reading instruction program shows how the district’s toxic love affair with debunked reading fads has been harming students in predictable ways. This Lowell 9th grade class is the first cohort not prescreened for academic competencies; therefore, they must be seen as representative of future incoming cohorts of Lowell students under a lottery system. So these troubling 9th grade results this year at Lowell promise to become the new normal for future Lowell cohorts of students who will be randomly assigned to Lowell.
The tripling of Ds and Fs in one year was bracing to us Lowell teachers. Reading is a skill built on foundations, but the literacy audit revealed almost nonexistent teaching of reading foundations. 92% of SFUSD classrooms were found to be not meeting standards in this area. Reading fluency depends on efficient and accurate word reading, which needs to be taught in K-2. When teaching doesn’t prioritize these fundamentals, kids move into the upper grades without grade-level fluency. As a result, reading is difficult, which means struggling readers tend to read less, and consequently their vocabulary and language development suffer. The cumulative impacts of poor early reading instruction are astounding.
As a district, we are now reaping the results of our poor curriculum choices. The most recent pre-pandemic data show that 55% of all SFUSD students don’t meet standards in English Language Arts (ELA), and there are huge gaps in the performances of specific subgroups. Only 21% of Black students met ELA standards. The results were even worse for English learners and students with disabilities.
When Lowell teachers first noticed the high number of Ds and Fs our students were earning, we did what good teachers always do: we compared notes. Who was thriving? Who was struggling? We analyzed student work. We scoured cumulative files and lexile reports. We used student data to inform instruction.
But one thing stood out: none of us had ever seen so many 9th graders at Lowell struggling to read at grade level.
We were shocked by this lack of reading readiness. Could this be a snapshot of the general level of 9th grade reading readiness across all of SFUSD?
Judging by the audit report on SFUSD’s early reading program, it certainly seems possible.
True Equity Demands Improving K-5 Literacy Results
SFUSD leadership needs to accept that the Ds and Fs among Lowell 9th graders this past year are a wake-up call – evidence that calls for a return to evidence-based reading curricula in K-5. SFUSD can no longer afford to ignore the science of reading -- a field whose consensus is so broad it has come to be called literally ‘THE Science of Reading,’
The continued use of debunked literacy methods in the K-5 years has taken its toll on all our students. These 9th graders at Lowell are just the canaries in the coal mine.
Elizabeth Statmore is a math teacher at Lowell and an executive board member of Families for San Francisco. Megan Potente, a 20-year elementary educator, now serves as co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA. She is the parent of an SFUSD graduate.