Subliterate Readers and Media Literacy

Per Assembly Bill 873, media literacy skills must now be taught in California schools. The law requires that it not be done in a stand-alone class but rather must be woven into existing English language arts, science, math, and history-social studies classes.

Assemblymember Marc Berman, who authored the law, claims, “Teaching media literacy is a key strategy to support our children, their families, and our society that are inundated with misinformation and disinformation on social media networks and digital platforms. From climate denial to vaccine conspiracy theories to the January 6 attack on our nation’s Capital, the spread of online misinformation has had global and deadly consequences.”

It’s not only California that has a media literacy law. Texas, New Jersey, and Delaware have also passed this kind of legislation, and more than a dozen other states are moving in that direction. However, according to Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for media literacy in K-12 schools, California’s law falls short of its recommendations. The group explains that California’s approach doesn’t include funding to train teachers, an advisory committee, or any way to monitor the law’s effectiveness.

As noted by Berman, the rush toward media literacy is a priority because young adults are more likely to believe information from social media than traditional news outlets. While I am hardly a proponent of getting news from social media, is the mainstream media really any better?

The New York Times, aka the “newspaper of record,” may be, historically speaking, the worst, most deceitful media outlet in the country. Most notably, the Times and its writer, Walter Duranty, colluded to knowingly overlook the Stalin-led starvation of Ukraine in 1931. The newspaper also went all in for the great Duke University lacrosse team hoax of 2006, which centered around an alleged rape that never happened. Additionally, The Times also embraced the disgraced 1619 project in 2019. And in 2021, the newspaper referred to the blatantly satirical Babylon Bee as a “far-right misinformation site.”

Additionally, regarding climate change, in the 1970s, the MSM exploded with stories about an oncoming ice age. In the ’80s, acid rain warnings were all the rage. In the ‘90s, we were told that the ozone layer was imperiled. In the aughts, the polar icecaps—not to mention polar bears themselves—were said to be endangered.

None of the above happened, of course, but acknowledgment was rare in the MSM.

The new law has massive problems. Importantly, who is going to determine what fake news is?

Perhaps many schools will follow the lead of the American Federation of Teachers, which, in 2022, announced that it had launched a national partnership with NewsGuard. The union claims that it is a “leading anti-misinformation tool” that protects and champions legitimate journalism and fact-based reporting and “will help educators and their students navigate a sea of online disinformation.”

At the time, AFT president Randi Weingarten claimed that the deal would be a game-changer for the union’s 1.7 million teachers and the tens of millions of children and their families who are currently “drowning in an ocean of online dishonesty.” She melodramatically added, “It is a beacon of clarity to expose the dark depths of the internet and uplift those outlets committed to truth and honesty rather than falsehoods and fabrications.”

But one look at NewsGuard’s lists outs them as leftist advocates, and nothing close to objective. Nine out of the ten websites on NewsGuard’s “Ten Most Influential Misinformers” list for 2021 lean right, with Newsmax, TheGatewayPundit.com, and The Federalist deemed the worst of the worst. On the other hand, The Ten Top Trustworthy and Trending Sites” are all center-left to far-left with NBCNews.com, The New York Times, and The Washington Post ranking highest.

The bias of their “anti-disinformation tool” is glaring. A recent study by the Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative media watchdog, reveals that NewsGuard has an “extraordinary” political bias that makes left-wing news outlets far more likely to get a better rating.

The MRC report found that outlets rated “left” or “lean left” received an average NewsGuard score of 93, while sites considered “right” or “lean right” had an average rating of just 66. The MRC also discloses that Jacobin, a socialist magazine that calls itself the “leading voice of the American left” and champions such notions as the nationalization of supermarkets, receives a score of 92.5 by NewsGuard. The Nation, also a far-left magazine that has defended the looting and vandalism committed during the widespread riots in the summer of 2020, also has a 92.5 NewsGuard score.

It would be infinitely better if schools actually started teaching children good old-fashioned reading skills instead of stressing media literacy.

In California, the most recent Smarter Balanced test scores released in late October 2023 indicate that 46.7% of students are meeting literacy standards. This standardized test is given to all students in grades 3–8 and grade 11. Also, the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that just 30% of the state’s 8th-graders are proficient in reading.

According to a report released earlier this month by the National Council on Teacher Quality, California and most other states aren’t doing enough to support and train teachers to effectively teach literacy. In fact, only 12 states were rated strong in this area.

Heather Peske, president of NCTQ, explains, “While states are rightly prioritizing literacy, they are not focusing enough attention on teacher effectiveness and teacher capacity to teach reading aligned to the science. If these efforts are to succeed … the state needs to ensure that teachers are prepared and supported from the time that they are in teacher preparation programs to the time that they enter classrooms.”

The key words here are “teach reading aligned to the science.” The “science of reading” is the way just about everyone over 50 learned how to read. It is where a teacher first builds phonemic awareness (an understanding of individual sounds and sound pairs), followed by phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, and then comprehension.

But education, being a fad-driven field, persistently replaces what works with what sounds good. Perhaps the best exemplar of this mentality is Lucy Calkins, who reigned as a reading guru beginning in 1981. She certainly is well-credentialed—an M.A. and Certification in the Teaching of Reading from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. in English Education from New York University. Her Units of Study, a language arts educational program built on “balanced literacy”—a vision of children as natural readers—dominated classrooms across the country for four decades. Calkins has asserted that a quarter of the country’s 67,000 elementary schools use it.

The curriculum’s publisher claims that it is used in “tens of thousands of schools around the world.”

But now, after 40 years of miseducation, America’s children have been given a reprieve. Calkins has admitted she was wrong. With tail planted firmly between her legs, she now says, “All of us are imperfect. The last two or three years, what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.”

So now the country is reverting to phonics and other traditional ways of teaching reading. Even California has gotten on board. By September 1, the state will require teacher preparation programs to provide literacy training based on the science of reading for English teachers and elementary teachers.

The problem with the new law is that by the time the current crop of teachers-to-be slogs through ed school, untold numbers of subliterate students will continue their miseducation. And what about current teachers who are still immersed in Calkins and other harmful fads?

Teachers must immediately be taught the science of reading through professional development classes. Spending time on that instead of “media literacy” will greatly benefit students, their parents, and society as a whole.
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Larry Sand, a retired 28-year classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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