Research and Reflections

Thoughts on The Right to Read

Kareem Weaver seems like a guy who is very difficult to dislike.  According to the documentary, The Right to Read, he was a teacher in Oakland for several years. He taught elementary, middle, and high school. He was also an administrator, father, and Morehouse man. He has taken on reading as an issue that affects Black, Latino, and white families, seemingly serving as a one-man-policy-creator. He makes this point by highlighting the suburban white mothers who pay out of pocket to support their children with reading tutors when their children struggle with literacy at school. He is credible any way you slice it, and as a Black man who graduated from an HBCU, he checks a lot of boxes for me.  He may be genuine and credible. However, The Right to Read is only the start of a broader, deeper, more nuanced conversations about literacy development, particularly in Black and Latino communities.

One of the ongoing conversations must revolve around textbook companies and teacher agency. One of the more poignant aspects of the documentary is Weaver’s undermining of researchers, textbook companies, and edu-celebrities supporting balanced literacy. Weaver is clear in his indictment of Irene Fountas, Lucy Calkins, Gay Su Pinnel, and Mary Clay; he does not support their programming, because it’s unsupported by research. That is genuine. What is equally genuine is the need for conversation in schools about what should happen when curriculum does not work for children.

We get a glimpse of this with Ms. Causey. If Weaver is Superman, Causey is Wonder Woman. They embody the reason we send our children to public school every day. They spoke up by declaring, “The Units of Study do not work for my children!” so Causey was able to get material that supported her students’ academic needs. But every teacher is responsible for speaking up. When teachers are young and building agency, this is the job of school leaders. This is especially true because teachers trust building leaders who hire them. 

Superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents are responsible for interrogating the materials placed in front of children. This is why I say it is disingenuous to blame Mary Clay, Lucy Calkins, or Gay Su Pinnell. They are salespersons. Is it their responsibility to ask districts if their product is right for a particular group of children? Principals must speak out like Mrs. Causey spoke against a popular program that did not help her students. She found something that did support them. However, we are not exonerated from those conversations simply because the Science of Reading programs are aligned to the latest and greatest research. That interrogation and research is still pertinent.

My first principal used to admonish us by saying, “Curriculum does not teach children, and you don’t teach curriculum. You teach children!” That conversation and interrogation is part of how we make curricula work for students. The Science of Reading as a movement is a trojan horse chock full of companies, researchers, organizations, consultants, pitches, webinars, and the like—just enough to overwhelm the national teacher capacity. The Right to Read situates itself as an infomercial for SOR as a literacy-for-all-campaign. I believe Weaver is a literacy-for-all advocate. But SOR as a literacy-for-all movement….not so much. That won’t materialize absent hard, historic conversations between SOR communities and the Black and Latino communities about why illiteracy persists. Insert the broader, deeper conversation I referenced in the first paragraph. In the meantime, SOR is the next big thing. As we look at former “next big things,” i.e., new math, project-based learning, the charter revolution etc., we should ask how those things worked for Black students.

A New York Times article on Lucy Calkins’ re-working of her curriculum declares, “For decades Lucy Calkins has determined how millions of children have learned to read.” This is hyperbole to some degree, but it stands as an apostle’s warning when selecting curriculum and material. Educator agency is key. Weaver has interrogated the curriculum, and so has Causey. Have you? If not, why not? As a district leader or decision maker, you cannot jump ship and say, “I am going to do what Weaver says,” and jump on the Science of Reading bandwagon—even if he is ultra-believable. We must interrogate and authorize literacy and learning in the places we work. If not, can we blame Kareem Weaver in 20 years if NAEP scores are low? Can we blame Weaver if the reading skills of Black males do not increase? We are responsible, not textbook distributors and pundits. We must continue to use our voice, exercise agency, and interrogate. If not, we are setting ourselves up to be sold a story.

One thought on “Thoughts on The Right to Read

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About the Author: Desmond Williams has 19 years experience as a teacher and principal in Washington, DC. He founded Nylinka School Solutions, an education consulting firm in 2018 with the purpose of helping schools support Black males fairly. He is most passionate about literacy and academic engagement for Black Boys. In 2022, Williams published, The Burning House: Educating Black Boys in Modern America.