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Addressing Legacy Preferences at Yale, Ineffective Special Ed in CT, + Balanced Literacy Must Go

This weekly segment by Democrats for Education Reform CT looks at the top education stories Democrats are watching, providing bite-sized analysis and links to recent articles. On the roster this week: Addressing Legacy Preferences at Yale, CT’s Ineffective Special Ed System, and Balanced Literacy Must Go.

Today at 1pm! Don’t miss Education Reform Now’s conversation with US Senator Chris Murphy on reforming school discipline. Mark your calendars, and join us by registering here.

Will Legacy Preferences Remain for Yale?

Recently, the use of "legacy preferences" has come under fire. It's an admissions practice in which a college gives preference to applicants related to alumni of that institution. Amherst College announced that it would be ending the legacy preference last month. Johns Hopkins did so last year. And Colorado banned the practice for public colleges and universities statewide this year.

In October, the Yale College Council (YCC), the representative student government, voted for an end to boosting admissions rates for children of alumni at the prestigious school as well. But the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions didn't agree. Talking to Yale Daily News this month, he explains that legacy is never the sole reason for a students' admission, and argues that legacy students tend to be higher performing than many of their peers. Nevertheless, Viet Andy Nguyen—who leads the #LeaveYourLegacy initiative—observes that the majority of legacy students are white and affluent. The YCC's resolution also cites research showing a lack of evidence that legacy preference practices actually encourage wealthy donations, as many have long believed.

CT’s Special Ed System Failing Too Many Students

This week, Connecticut Voices for Children released a report titled “Reimagining Connecticut's Special Education Systems for a Post-Pandemic Future,” which labels Connecticut's special education systems “insufficient, ineffective, and inequitable” in both funding and delivery of services. According to CT By the Numbers' coverage, although student enrollment declined by more than 8% between 2007 and 2019, the special education population grew by 23%. However, funds from the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant are based on the state's decreasing total enrollment, rather than its increasing special education enrollment. Moreover, the report identifies that the wealthiest districts received eight times more per pupil funding through the state’s Excess Cost Grant than Connecticut's poorest districts.

No Shortcuts: Why Balanced Literacy Must Go

In October, EdReports released its review of the widely used Lucy Calkins' Units of Study curriculum, finding that its programs “do not meet expectations” in any category evaluated or any grade level. Popular curricula like Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell rely on a “balanced literacy” model that uses “three-cueing,” rather than phonics. Overwhelming scientific evidence has shown that the prompting and memorization strategies of “three-cueing” do not serve students and that most children learning to read, in fact, need explicit phonics instruction. These providers have been scrambling to add a phonics, or “Science of Reading,” layer to their models, but have failed to eliminate their underlying harmful cueing strategies. (For a more detailed discussion of the different instructional philosophies, here's a throwback to Emily Hanford from 2019.)

This Sunday, Natalie Wexler's must-read opinion in Forbes further unpacked the findings about balanced literacy. Beyond failing to establish the decoding skills students need to build literacy, Wexler observes, the model of balanced literacy also harms students by insisting on combining instruction about phonics skills with instruction to build reading comprehension skills. It’s true that, eventually—once students have both become fluent readers and gained sufficient foundational knowledge—they will be able to independently gain knowledge from reading complex texts. But first, in the earlier years, students need to build both sets of skills separately. “The skills needed to decipher words and of building academic vocabulary need to start out on two separate tracks,” she writes.

In short, for districts that have been utilizing a balanced literacy model, tacking on some phonics drills—or incorporating programs like Fundations—is not going to be a comprehensive fix. Under the new Right to Read legislation, Connecticut is headed in the direction for real systemic change that will shift all districts completely away from the framework of balanced literacy.

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