Six Decades Later: Why We Can’t Wait!
by Faith Borkowsky
In thinking about how to effect real change in 2021 to fulfill “the dream” of seeing all children learn to read, I chose to read two of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous books, Why We Can’t Wait and Where Do We Go from Here. As a child growing up in the 1970s, all I was ever taught about Dr. King was the watered-down story of a peaceful man who gave up his life fighting for civil rights for African Americans. Although I learned about his great skill as an orator and knew that he had given a speech in Washington, D.C. in which he stated, “I have a dream,” I never knew that he was also an accomplished author. Even after his birthday became a federal holiday in 1983, there wasn’t one course I took in college that required me to read anything he had written. One would think that a university course in history or sociology in this country would, or should, have included more about Dr. King.
I wanted to learn more about how Dr. King helped create a movement that resulted in real change. What I found was that Dr. King was, perhaps, one of the most compelling writers I have ever read, and I feel smarter for having finally discovered his books. He provided a roadmap for what it truly takes to bring about positive and necessary change in a peaceful and courageous manner that resonates even today. While I do not in any way mean to equate Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights in the 1960s with our goal of bringing proper literacy instruction to our schools, there are parallels that cannot be ignored.
Quotes taken from Dr. King’s books are embedded in bold below.
A philosophical divide has propelled the “Reading Wars” for decades. As an educator fighting what seems to be an uphill battle to bring common sense to literacy instruction, I understand why schools have latched onto safe, socially-acceptable themes such as “balance” to market an image of positivity and progress. And, I have witnessed with increasing alarm how the major players in literacy education have cultivated, over the past year, the illusion of compromise and reflection in response to the inroads the Science of Reading proponents have made in trying to shake things up. Unfortunately, many people see this as a win, and they naively believe that with continued education and dialogue the balance will eventually tilt in favor of literacy instruction that aligns with scientific evidence. But science and research articles alone will not change the hearts and minds of people who are steadfast in their beliefs. Balanced literacy proponents often interpret even hard science in a manner that affirms their entrenched ideas. “The old guard in any society resents new methods, for old guards wear the decorations and medals won by waging battle in the accepted manner.”
And so, the balanced literacy camp has done what parties in control always do when confronted with a rising tide of protest and undeniable truth. They co-opted the parts of reading science that they could not dismiss or deny and pretended it was a part of their program all along or, even worse, that they were able to build it into their existing programs, creating even more... balance.
We must not be fooled. This half-hearted effort to rebrand Balanced Literacy is dangerous and must be exposed for what it is: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The soundbites may make us feel good in the short run, but they really do more harm than good because they serve mostly to placate and distract us from taking the necessary steps to really move forward. We rarely get the raw truth; instead, we see our words parsed and included in new marketing efforts that make it look like we’ve been heard, when, in reality, nothing has changed. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
In the interests of compromise and avoiding conflict, advocates for the Science of Reading often appease the Balanced Literacy camp by giving in to their desire to maintain “balance.” After all, balance in all things has become a mantra in so many aspects of society today, and it all sounds so reasonable. This has created a great deal of tension among those of us who advocate forcefully for a structured approach because we know it is right for all children. We know that good things never come from comfort zones.
If we want success, we must get comfortable being uncomfortable.
“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’... there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” We cannot be afraid of creating a stir. School districts are not going to throw out materials and books that have been part of their culture for years without opposition. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” As dyslexia advocacy groups push for legislation to make necessary changes that uphold the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we must also educate the public and keep applying pressure to school districts, publishing companies, unions, and government officials to begin to make real change for all children. “I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
I have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of straight talk and the unwillingness of so many on the side of science to say “enough is enough.” “[I]njustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” Our schools have been given more than enough time to figure out how to truly teach children to read. Government grants and initiatives have not made a dent in the literacy crisis, especially in Black and Latino communities. In a recent study, only about 18% of African American fourth-graders were proficient in reading. And yet, my experience is that the problem persists in even the most sought-after school districts. This is because the Balanced Literacy framework that is so entrenched is a failure. We all must have a sense of urgency and not stay silent.
This problem will NOT go away with time.
“We must get rid of the false notion that there is some miraculous quality in the flow of time that inevitably heals all evils. There is only one thing certain about time, and that is that it waits for no one. If it is not used constructively it passes you by.” In order to eliminate stagnation, we must be persistent in creating a stir. We must involve parents outside the dyslexia community and educate as many organizations in our communities as possible. Social action must involve pediatricians, preschool teachers, daycare workers, religious leaders, librarians, and entrepreneurs. “We must involve everyone we can reach, even those with inadequate education, and together acquire political sophistication by discussion, practice and reading.”
“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” A ‘Reading Revolution’ will only occur when all vestiges of Balanced Literacy are removed from our schools. We cannot think for a minute that university professors, who have sent and continue to send thousands of young teachers out to our schools every year, ill-equipped to teach reading, have not heard that their “research” and unproven strategies have been debunked. We must make it difficult for their employers to allow them to continue lecturing to pre-service teachers on Balanced Literacy without critically considering its failure over the past decades, and without discussing the Science of Reading.
Dr. King touched upon so many of these issues over 50 years ago. “The sad truth is that American schools, by and large, do not know how to teach – nor frequently what to teach. The ineffectiveness in teaching reading skills to many young people, whether white or black, poor or rich, strongly indicts foundations and government for not spending funds effectively...”
“The road to effective education requires helping teachers to teach more effectively. The use of nonprofessional aides would reduce class size and provide needed assistance to teachers. More direct training and aid in teaching youngsters from low-income families is needed. Parents should be involved in schools to a much greater extent, breaking down the barriers between professionals and the community that they serve. Education is too important to be left to professional fads and needs. This is not to assert that professional competence is unnecessary, but that there must be a greater evidence of competence and a new and creative link between parents and schools.”
These words could have been written today. Significant levels of illiteracy in minority communities is a social justice issue and must be made a priority. But the fact that only 40% of our fourth graders are reading at grade-level proficiency across the country is evidence that the problem is widespread and systemic. If we want REAL change for ALL children, we must emulate the tactics that actually work.
This is why we can’t wait.
Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations. Ms. Borkowsky is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention and the “If Only I Would Have Known…” series.She is also a board member of Teach My Kid to Read, a 501(c) non-profit organization with a mission to support and empower students, teachers, and parents through education so all kids, including those with dyslexia, learn to read.