DeKalb school board member: Marietta offers model on teaching reading

DeKalb school board member Allyson Gevertz would like the school district to make more of a commitment to the science of reading. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

DeKalb school board member Allyson Gevertz would like the school district to make more of a commitment to the science of reading. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

In a guest column, DeKalb school board member Allyson Gevertz calls on the district to fully embrace the arguments supporting the science of reading, which advocates drilling down on explicit phonemic awareness, word recognition, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels.

A former school psychologist for Gwinnett County Public Schools, Gevertz holds master’s and specialist degrees in school psychology. Elected in 2018 to the DeKalb school board, she is now in her second term. She notes this column represents her view and not that of the DeKalb school board.

By Allyson Gevertz

Our kids must read.

For years, I’ve opined that after safety and food, the next most important thing our kids need at school is literacy. We have known for decades that children must learn to read by third grade because that is the year our education system shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

In DeKalb, we have failed to produce proficient third grade readers. (In 2022, 53.7% of DeKalb third graders tested at or above proficiency in English on the Milestones assessment test, a nearly 10 percentage point decline from 2019, which was blamed on the pandemic.) This impacts all areas of academics, including math, for the remaining K-12 years and beyond. The problem is not due to COVID-19, though the pandemic exacerbated it. A status quo approach will not fix it.

Allyson Gevertz

Credit: Photo contributed by the candidate

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Credit: Photo contributed by the candidate

Over the last year or so, I’ve done a deeper dive into the research on literacy. My sources have been various online articles, the podcast “Sold a Story,” the film “The Truth About Reading,” discussions with educators and presentations/conversations with Comer Yates, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera and Thomas Koballa, dean of the Mercer University College of Education.

What I’ve realized is that I am one of the educators who was programmed to accept a whole language approach, even though I knew on some level it did not make sense. As a school psychologist, I knew that a lack of phonemic awareness — the ability to identify the individual sounds in words — could indicate a processing problem. However, Reading Recovery (which focuses heavily on context cues) was the recommended intervention for struggling readers. The intervention did not match the need, but I did not recognize that. I was part of the problem.

Cognitive science now clearly shows that teaching kids to memorize words or to use context clues (cuing system, what word makes sense, what does the picture show) does not actually teach children to read. Those techniques do the opposite — teach workaround strategies that usually fail in the long term when reading becomes more complex. Kids must be systematically taught to understand phonemes, the sounds of our oral language, and how they relate to the letters of our written language.

The science of reading is not a specific product or curriculum, but the accumulation of decades of neurological research on how humans acquire reading skills. In the film “The Truth About Reading,” one educator says the epidemic of illiteracy is not due to dyslexia but due to “dysteachia” because teachers haven’t been trained on how to teach reading.

In DeKalb, this is a major equity issue. More than half our students are not proficient in reading by third grade, and the percentage is worse for Black and Hispanic children. Some schools have addressed the reading problem by asking their foundations to pay for teacher training in science of reading programs like the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Some parents have supported their struggling readers by hiring tutors who specialize in science of reading-based techniques. DeKalb has begun the shift to science of reading, but according to districts that have made the switch, the effort requires a systemwide, deep, intensive investment in teachers.

DeKalb’s adoption of LETRS — Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling — is a positive step, but it is only used voluntarily by certain teachers at certain schools. Other teachers continue with balanced literacy (as opposed to the structured literacy of LETRS), instructing with sight words and context cues because that’s how they were taught to teach.

At first, I resisted speaking on this issue because board member training dictates that we stay in our lane and hire a superintendent to make management decisions. Choosing a curriculum, vetting educational programs and determining professional development resources are outside the purview of board governance. However, boards are responsible for accountability.

DeKalb has not met our No. 1 strategic goal: “Student Success with Equity and Access.” The Marietta school board approached this issue by “digging deep” into student data. They scheduled a two-hour “retreat” once a month, specifically to discuss academic progress. They focused on subgroups (such as English language learners) that were not meeting state literacy standards by third grade. While not dictating how their superintendent moved the needle, the Marietta school board clearly expected movement. After two years, Marietta is seeing significant improvements in its MAP assessments that monitor student growth.

As DeKalb continues its nascent embrace of the science of reading, I hope our board will follow in Marietta’s footsteps. Our kids must read.